Life Through His Eyes
Photo by Brendan Capria
For that moment, it was a utopia. Through the darkness, flickers of light beamed into his eyes; he took notice. Tanner Robinson, 24, thereafter gathered himself.
“To know there were stars there: that was nuts,” he says. “I could see flickering lights. That was amazing.”
The sociology student and Arizona native had seen what was assumed to be the impossible. Robinson is blind and has been since birth; he has very limited, deteriorating vision. As he stood up-top Mount Kilimanjaro, seeing what little scenery he could, it resonated with him. He could surmount any further adversity ahead.
Robinson has endured adversity in his life — from daily tasks to the extreme of climbing large mountains. He thrives on adversity. But, the ASU Sun Devil looks to make one more climb soon: up the stage to graduate.
Kilimanjaro had been but a step in Robinson’s life. The Foundation for Blind Children organized the expedition in June 2009; Robinson was one of the eight blind hikers of the 25 total in his group. Marc Ashton, the CEO for the organization, says he remembers that moment.
“I remember coming down from the top,” Ashton says. “I was talking to him and said, ‘I can’t believe we made it.’ He says he couldn’t see us not making it.”
Ashton says when Robinson had seen the stars, that moment was every gasp and breath he had taken to climb the highest peak in Africa. He says Robinson believed in himself, much like he does today.
Robinson would lace up his Merrill hiking boots bright and early every morning to ascend the mountain. With each of the six-day climbs, the weather would change: the terrain would differ and the temperature would plummet due to the increasing altitude.
“Fifteen degrees…,” he says. “That woke me up. It was surprising for me.”
Robinson says the days became monotonous to the point of exhaustion. His group was an anchor. They used not only Leki poles but also each other for support. Upon reaching the top, Robinson says it was surreal.
“You touch the sign (at the top), and it’s like you’ve actually done something,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Tom Edwards
The triumphant experience has passed, but Robinson says the feeling of accomplishment hit him afterwards. He says he lives for that high — to challenge himself daily as if he were still climbing.
Robinson is in his senior year at ASU. Instead of climbing mountains he runs on the treadmill daily; he did climb the Grand Canyon in 2010. Rather than finding his way around the summit, he locates his way around campus. This is not considered a step down in his life.
Stability at ASU led to new ground for Robinson; he started clubs, reached out to high school students who would soon be in his shoes and introduced himself to new challenges to overcome.
Stability did not come easily. Robinson first needed to find his way around campus.
Robinson has a cane and dog to guide him through campus. But, he does not let the extra help totally control him. He likes the challenge when relying on himself.
Robinson says walking around campus is much different from those who have their sight though he similarly has to dodge longboards and bicycles. He uses his other senses to find his way.
Robinson feels the slabs of pavement under his feet; he counts them.
To get to the intersection of Tyler Mall and Palm Walk from the G. Homer Durham Language Literature building, there are about 3-4 rough lines separating the slabs to smooth pavement, he says.
Finding his way around the Tempe campus was just practice; there were other stressors to the college life he worried about.
“You’re thrown into a fishbowl,” Robinson says about college. “But adversity is a challenge. It is a force that shapes us. I felt like I’m truly coming into my own.”
This was at the beginning of college. In high school, Robinson says he was more reserved. His reason: being visually impaired was not considered “cool” in high school. His transition into college changed this notion; there was less judgment surrounding him.
“Don’t be afraid of being judged,” he says. “Now I feel comfortable with the person I am.”
Robinson sees this progression in confidence as kaizen. Kaizen is the Japanese term for “improvement.” He says the term to him is not to think anybody is ever done growing and improving.
Robinson used his navigation skills and newfound confidence three years ago to embrace the college experience. This is when he met Jordan Moon, who is now an ASU alumnus.
“I ran into Tanner outside of the Language Literature building,” Moon says, who is blind like Robinson. “It was a perfect finding. We started to gel and became really close friends. We’re regular buds.”
Robinson and Moon hang out regularly. Moon says Robinson values his friends and is a great friend.
“We have a ball,” Moon says.
Their friendship also helped in navigating around ASU. Robinson, who was centralized on the Tempe campus, started to have classes on the Downtown Phoenix campus.
Robinson knew his way around the Tempe campus— stemming from the bamboo water fixture next to the Language Literature building. The Downtown campus was another obstacle; Moon knew his way around this one. Moon says he showed Robinson the ropes of downtown and this benefitted their friendship.
The campus environment even benefitted their safety, which they both said they liked. When dealing with longboard and bicycles Moon says most of the downtown campus is inside.
“People don’t ride inside!” he says.
Starting an awareness group
Robinson’s friendship with Moon soon resulted in change for all of ASU. In the fall semester of 2009, both of them were involved (with one other student) in creating a club: Ability Counts Tempe (ACT). The organization was created to remove any stigma attached to those with disabilities.
The negative stigma associated with being disabled — ridicule and being “different” are some of many — all stems from the lack of knowledge about their diagnoses. The organization’s goal is to educate students on disabilities so they can be more understanding.
“We’re trying to shatter those misconceptions,” Robinson says.
Moon says he thinks this has been accomplished, even after he graduated; he still attends meetings despite wanting to “pass the torch” to current students.
“We had a goal and it expanded into this amazing organization,” Moon says. “So far, so good.”
Robinson attends the meetings even with Moon’s limited role. At the meetings, President Ashleigh Gonzales and the other members— which include both disabled and not disabled— try to find ways to not advocate but raise awareness about disabilities.
“People have the opportunity to ask about disabilities without being awkward,” Gonzales says, who is also blind.
ACT annually holds “No Boundaries,” an event focused on educating the public on disabilities and living with them. The event usually has a panel of those living with disabilities; they set the scene for those looking to learn more by discussing their own lives.
“We don’t look at what you can’t do,” Gonzales says. “We want to show the community that we’re all people too.”
Robinson does not recognize his blindness as a disability. He says he always tries to be optimistic and live beyond it. The Foundation for Blind Children instilled him with that positive mentality.
“A blind student already has obstacles to overcome getting out of bed,” Ashton says. “(The Foundation for Blind Children) teaches students that vision is just something to overcome. Your vision loss is a diagnosis, not a disability.”
Ashton says Robinson has exemplified perseverance throughout his life; Robinson was enrolled in the infant and preschool program at the organization. Robinson pays it forward now by offering to volunteer.
“He was volunteering,” Ashton says. “He said, ‘I wanted to give back.’”
This past summer, Robinson was a residential assistant for high school children within the organization. Ashton says he wanted to show the students that anything is possible. Robinson did not want high school students to endure the hardships of high school — ridicule being a major hurdle — like he had.
Ashton says his 16-year-old son, Max Ashton, learned from Robinson. Max climbed Kilimanjaro with Robinson.
“Tanner has shown Max that ASU is a great school and that anything is possible,” Marc says.
His son says he agrees.
“(Kilimanjaro) was the hardest thing I’ve done,” he says. “It shows how strong Tanner is. The mentality is to not give up.”
Max will soon go on to college, and he has his mind on out of state. With that transition, he says Robinson has made the thought of it more bearable.
“Even going from middle school to high school was a change,” Max says, who attends Brophy College Preparatory in Scottsdale. “ASU is a big campus. If Tanner can figure out ASU then I should be fine anywhere else.”
Through struggle and strife, Robinson has always had support from his younger brother, Carter Robinson.
“He’s my older brother, but I’ve always played the unspoken older brother role,” 23-year-old Carter says.
Photo courtesy of Tanner Robinson
Carter Robinson was on par with Tanner throughout their schooling; he was his sighted guide. Tanner would hold the right arm of his brother everywhere they went. That way, he could gauge ground levels and where to walk.
Carter says that “resentment” is not the word, but with guiding his brother, a lot of people around them would stare. Rather, he would normally respond by sticking up for him. From this, Carter says if there was anything he had taken from guiding Tanner, it was maturity.
“Their natural reaction was to stare,” Carter says. “When I was younger, I was forced to push that reaction aside, to throw that immaturity aside.”
To Carter, people were staring at a normal brotherly relationship. He says the two of them argued at times like any other family would.
“Beyond that, we had a pretty normal relationship: I hated him at times, he hated me,” Carter says chuckling. “But we got along.”
On top of learning how to play Braille Scrabble and Uno, Carter says he remembers teaming up with his brother in filming their version of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” the most.
The two brothers would reenact scenes from “Star Wars” movies and edit them. Carter says they would be up for hours editing 15 minutes worth of film; there were 24 frames per second to be edited with the recorder they were using.
“It was just us hanging out,” Carter says.
As they got older, the Robinson brothers would find peace in the summer trips to San Diego their family used to take. Their family would board the 32-foot vessel and lodge the boat in Mission Bay of the Pacific Ocean.
“That was heaven on earth,” Tanner says. “It was just so peaceful. I’ll go there in a minute.”
There, they would relax. Carter remembers the vessels name: “The Boys of Summer.” The name carried a deeper meaning.
When the Robinson brothers would walk down the docks in the marina, the old fishermen would holler ‘Hey, here come the boys of summer!” The name stuck.
“It was sad,” Carter says when he knew the boat needed to be sold. “But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
The brothers’ strong relationship carried over to ASU; Carter is an ASU alumnus. The two roomed together for three of Carter’s four years.
The dorm life freshman year was nice Carter says, but the final two years resonated more. Carter and Tanner reunited to live off-campus then.
“When we got back together again he became more of a friend,” Carter says. “I’ve learned to back-off, and he’s opened up more to me because of it.”
Carter was not there when Tanner climbed Kilimanjaro; he was working out of state. But when Carter arrived back home, the two talked. Carter had seen the person his brother had really become.
“To hear those stories about the stars… it definitely defines who he is,” he says. “That’s the reason why I let him do his own thing. He’s much stronger than I thought he was capable of.”
Crossing the stage
Tanner is scheduled to graduate this semester with a degree in sociology and with a minor in political science. This is pending on a political-based internship, which could extend it to spring.
All of his past experiences go into his future pursuits and into decisions like the internship.
“It just reminds me of how far I’ve come,” Tanner says about the present opportunities in his life. “All of the uncertainties were worthwhile.”
He plans to attend graduate school and pursue politics. As far as where he will end up, he says he will take whatever opportunities arise and overcome any obstacles along the way.
“You don’t know what you’re capable of until you do it,” he says. “Everyone has their mountains. The feeling of completing a challenge: you can create that whenever you want.”
Carter laughs when he says he knew his brother better than anyone.
“Everything he does is unexpected,” he says. “He could pull a 180.”
Tanner says he would even enjoy swimming in the waters of Alcatraz in San Francisco despite his brother being concerned with the sharks. He says that people have to live beyond their disabilities.
“There are no limitations,” Marc says. “I just know that he’s destined for greatness. Tanner’s probably going to be the first blind U.S. Senator from Arizona.”
Until then, he focuses on reaching out for that one goal at the peak of his time at ASU: a degree.
“Thanks to ASU and so many other organizations I’m fortunate to have come into contact with,” Tanner says.
Reach the writer at email@example.com or via Twitter @BrendanCapria