Unstoppable: How Shawn Adair Johnston of Atmosphere Press Has Redefined Success While Navigating…

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Unstoppable: How Shawn Adair Johnston of Atmosphere Press Has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Blindness

When I am out with friends the wait person, usher or clerk, will almost always ask my friend what I would like to order or purchase. Blind folks can usually think and talk for themselves. I know it is difficult for normally sighted person, when they cannot make eye contact with a blind patron, to ask the blind person’s companion what the blind person wants. Try, however, to directly interact with the blind fellow or gal and you may be pleasantly surprised.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Adair Johnston.

Shawn Adair Johnston received his Ph.D. in Psychology from U.C.L.A. in 1977 after which he specialized in forensic psychology, performing approximately 15,000 psychological evaluations of every imaginable type of juvenile and adult criminal defendant. In addition to being elected a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the mid 1980s for his published research concerning psychological characteristics of sex offenders, he has taught at U.C.L.A., U.C. Davis, California State University Northridge, California State University Sacramento, the University of San Francisco, Oregon State University and Portland State University in Oregon. Recently, he has been writing sci-fi/fantasy/mystery books, intending to introduce a blind hero into popular literature and entertain readers with thrilling futuristic adventure stories, dry humor, and an exploration of eternally interesting questions such as the nature of consciousness, the nature of good versus evil, and the existence of the soul.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

About the backstory, there are two: the first relates to why I became a forensic psychologist, which I did for nearly forty years, and the second relates to my current attempt to write popular science-fiction/fantasy/mystery novels. Concerning the first, I read my first college level introductory psychology textbook between my junior and senior years in high school. It described the two different types of work that psychologists do. Psychologists either provide therapy and psychological evaluations of their clients or conduct research regarding important human behaviors such as altruism, aggression, interpersonal attraction and so on. Both types of work instantly infatuated me and I went on to teach, do research (primarily on sex offenders) and establish and direct an outpatient treatment program in Sacramento for sex offenders on probation. As a person who has always wanted to do something socially relevant, this work was especially gratifying.

About the second backstory, after almost forty years of treating primarily juvenile and adult sex offenders, and after having performed court-ordered psychological evaluations of inmates in 30+ juvenile halls, county jails and state prisons, I felt I had earned my grey hair and that it was time for a change. I went on to do what I have always secretly wanted to do: write hopefully exciting science-fiction/fantasy books that people will want to read.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

I originally lost 90% of my eyesight at the age of eight, rendering me legally blind. Then half a century later, at the age of fifty-eight, I again lost 90% of my eyesight, rendering me walking-into-walls blind (which I do anywhere between five and fifteen times a day). At the time of my first vision loss, I lived with my parents in a small town in Ontario, Canada. It was frankly an exceedingly difficult situation. I was particularly good in athletics and academics back then. After my vision loss in the third grade, though, I could never again hit a baseball or hockey puck. The teasing from my little peers was truly brutal and while I love Canada in general, I was overjoyed when my parents moved from Ontario to Los Angeles in 1960.

In California there were great specialized programs for visually impaired kids, and I got large print books, magnifying glasses and eventually talking or recorded books that got me all the way to my doctorate at U.C.L.A. where I had also received my bachelor’s and master’s degree. While I needed to use binoculars in college to see the blackboard, while I was never able to speed read like my normally sighted friends, and while I was never able to get a driver’s license, let alone recognize someone with me in an elevator, I still had enough eyesight to ride a bike, go roller skating and even travel by myself to Puerta Vallarta and New York City. After my second great eyesight loss at the age of fifty-eight, I knew that bike riding would be unambiguously suicidal. I can still detect light and dark, and if the lighting is exactly right, I might see a giant tree right in front of me before I walk into it. Unfortunately, most of the time, I don’t see it. I still love walking, traveling, eating pastrami sandwiches and body surfing but obviously I miss not being able to see the stars, grizzly bears in Yellowstone and pretty girls. I do not like being blind. It is an unmitigated pain in the neck as well as elsewhere in the body. On the other hand, I have been blessed with good verbal skills, a great memory and relentless optimism. You will almost never find me dwelling on the negative. During those few times I have, a great meal or a fun party is all it takes to get me back on the right track.

For what it is worth, we all have a spiritual aspect and I have more or less for fifty years been a practicing Buddhist. Regardless of one’s spiritual path, I am personally most attracted to Christian and Buddhist teachings; I believe that spiritual exercise, meditation, prayer, etc. is just as important as physical exercise. My spiritual practice has helped me to accept the reality of my blindness and to do everything I can to overcome it. I can hardly wait to buy my first self- driving car. Look out! Blind psychologist on the road!

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness?

I am obviously proud of my educational experience and the many research articles I have published regarding psychological characteristics of sex offenders and how to detect deception in clinical interviews of criminal defendants. I am proud of the over 500 clients our treatment program served for twenty-five years in Sacramento. While sex offenders are notoriously recidivistic, we dramatically reduced the likely future sexual acting out of at least half to three-quarters of our clients.

I am especially proud of the many thousands of psychological evaluations I performed for judges, probation officers and lawyers. A Superior Court Judge in Yolo County once referred to my written reports as “literature.” I really liked that. Most of all I am proud of the fact that I was called as an expert witness to testify in court about half of the time by the defense and about half of the time by the prosecution. While there are, of course, many brilliant and scrupulous forensic psychologists in the United States and Canada, to be completely candid, many forensic psychologists will say what you pay them to say. I know this because I used to review the testing and interviewing data from other forensic psychologists for the California Department of Justice and numerous county District Attorneys’ offices, and in over half the reviews I performed, the forensic psychologist misrepresented their results almost always in the direction of mitigating the criminal culpability of their client. Sometimes, these “errors” were fairly small but in in a disturbing number of cases the misrepresentation was significant, and their ultimate expert opinion obviously intended to mislead a judge or jury. I am immensely proud that I was one of the forensic psychologists trusted by all sides. I am proud of my success and my honesty in writing reports or testifying.

Parenthetically, in a year or two, I hope to be proud of the number of science-fiction/fantasy books I will have sold. As I noted, always the optimist.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

With regard to advice, that is easy! Generally speaking, and whatever your disability, choose your goal and give it all you’ve got! If you want a college degree, memorize the info in your textbooks and lecture notes. If you want to be a writer, write! In fact, write and then edit, edit, edit. Because over one million books are now being published each year in the English-speaking world, be prepared for a long, hard slog just to get recognized, let alone popular. Of course, if you are the long lost blind identical twin of an American President or the first blind person on the moon, you may have instant access to a publisher; otherwise, you will have to work like a dog to break through. Since almost none of us have this kind of angle, you must choose what you really, really want to do to sustain you through all the needed hard work.

With regard to blind authors, in particular, I am going to share an important secret. Obviously, you will need to master a good screen reader program which then allows you to use the kind of word processing program necessary for effective editing. Here is the secret: while even mediocre writing can sound good when read out loud by a real human being, the writing has to be really good to sound good when read by a mechanical screen reader voice. I know that I have a good sentence or paragraph when the material being read by a mechanical voice sounds good, when it flows, when it “sings”.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I owe a great debt to my debate coach in high school, Roland Glover, the first black teacher to be employed in the South Bay Unified School District in L.A. County. Similarly, I owe much to my clinical supervisor, Dr. Raymond Anderson, during my post doc internship with the L.A. County Forensic Community Treatment Program. He taught me how to treat and evaluate dangerous clients while also teaching me much about myself. And of course, I have been blessed to have many friends and a lovely wife, all of whom have played a role in my success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I firmly believe that our sex offender treatment program in Sacramento reduced the number of child victims that would have been otherwise abused. I also believe that my ability to identify truly dangerous offenders helped both judges and juries to differentiate between those offenders who had the potential to be rehabilitated.

As I write my answers to your interview questions this morning, I have just received my seventh professional review for my latest book, Demons, the Great White North and the Blind Detective. Thus far, two 4-star reviews and five 5-star reviews. I now believe it is possible for me to write books that will entertain readers while demonstrating to the world that a young blind person can do heroic things. To both entertain and educate others feels like a great big pile of goodness.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

When I am out with friends the wait person, usher or clerk, will almost always ask my friend what I would like to order or purchase. Blind folks can usually think and talk for themselves. I know it is difficult for normally sighted person, when they cannot make eye contact with a blind patron, to ask the blind person’s companion what the blind person wants. Try, however, to directly interact with the blind fellow or gal and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Also, if you intuit a blind person needs help crossing a street or finding a toilet stall, don’t hesitate to gently take the blind person’s elbow and move them in the right direction.

Overall, blind people cherish and even crave independence, but we often need help in simple situations where rendering help will make the helper feel good. Blindness is not catching, and the next blind person you help just might be me, in which case you may be in store for a conversational treat!

Finally, two small but important points. When you help a blind friend to find a seat, whether at home, in a restaurant, or at an auditorium, place their hand on the back of the chair. This eliminates all ambiguity regarding where your blind friend should sit.

And, last but not least, if you would like to help but are unsure of what to do, just ask. Little things mean a lot.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

My favorite, indeed, my most important life lesson, was learning that no person and no thing is exactly as it initially appears. With regard to other people, for example, it takes at least one full revolution of the sun around the earth, that is to say one full year, before you have any hope of really knowing someone. A corollary to this most important of insights is that some of your most bitter failures may turn out to be among your greatest successes or to have put you on the right road to success. Everything and everybody is complex and multi-layered and to know what is really going on takes time, observation and thought. As the Buddha is said to have said, “Could be good, could be bad,” which means withhold judgment as things are unfolding.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

I would love to have breakfast or a cup of tea with the Dalai Lama. If he is not fully enlightened in the Buddhist sense, he is obviously close, and I would like to ask him what it is like. On the other end of the spectrum, I would love to have lunch with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. I would like to know more about his theory that we are all involved in a giant simulation. While I suspect he is not entirely correct, I equally suspect that this is an enormously valuable insight and would like to know more.

If you would like to contact Shawn Adair Johnston, you can do so through his website, www.theblinddetective.com or directly at shawnjohnstonphd@comcast.net

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Unstoppable: How Shawn Adair Johnston of Atmosphere Press Has Redefined Success While Navigating… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.