Celebrity cook, author, radio host, fundraising marathoner, traveller to dozens of countries (including the seven wonders of the world), life coach, raconteur, and referee for blind touch naked rugby, Julie Woods’ list of accomplishments is impressive by anyone’s standards, but what makes it even more remarkable is the that she ticked it off while blind.
“I knew early on after going blind that it was was silly to cling on to a sense that barely worked in favour of four others that did,” says Julie. “So I began focussing on what I could do, not what I couldn’t. Thanks to the Blind Foundation, I learnt to use my other senses more. Our vision is so dominant, it’s very hard to give it up, but when you do, you start to operate in a way that takes advantage of your other senses. It felt odd to start with, but the more I did it, the more ordinary it became.”
Learning braille, Julie admits, was one of the biggest challenges she faced, but overcoming it was also among the most rewarding: “I couldn’t believe I could read again, not with my eyes, but with my fingers!”
Born and bred in Dunedin, Julie was declared legally blind in 1997, aged just 31. Four years later her husband left, leaving Julie as a single mother of two boys, Zachary and Sebastian, then aged seven and five. “When I went blind, I thought my life had ended,” she says. “Little did I realise t had only just begun.”
I knew early on after going blind that it was was silly to cling on to a sense that barely worked in favour of four others that did. – Julie Woods
I tell Julie she outdoes most people without a disability. “You have to be open to opportunities,” she says. “It all stems from the ‘why not?’, but I don’t mean to show you sighted buggers up!”
Have you always had such a positive attitude to life?
“When I was seven-years-old, I fell over in the company of my mother and my grandmother. At that moment, my grandmother turned to my mother and said ‘whatever happens to Julie, she’ll come up smiling!’ She must have seen something in me that I was going to need later in life. Complaining wasn’t tolerated in our house, my mother was action oriented and my father accepted what came his way. Both of those things I have inherited which I think have really been an asset when it comes to going blind and simply getting on with it — whatever ‘it’ is.”
What are you most proud of so far?
“Travelling to 50 countries by the time I was 50 was a big accomplishment for me, but I guess top would be embracing blindness. I’ve been open to do things in different ways and welcoming people into my life. It has enabled me to be the best blind person I can possibly be.”
One of the most significant people to have entered her life is second husband Ron, whom she married in 2011. I ask Julie how they met and she lets out a giggle before revealing that he was her case worker at an organisation which supports people with disabilities. Surely, I ask in mock-horror, that’s crossing some sort of doctor-patient-type boundary? “It was completely inappropriate!”
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt about yourself and others since becoming blind?
“I’ve learnt that I am very open minded. In fact it’s the biggest thing I’ve brought to change. I don’t see this in others — most don’t like to get out of their own comfort. When you have to however, and you are open to new possibilities, then the world becomes your oyster. I said ‘no’ once to going cross-country skiing. It was the best thing I did because it made me go home, sit on the couch and reflect on what a stupid woman I was. From that moment on I said ‘why not!’ to all the opportunities that came my way.”
Julie tells me people queried her reasons for travelling when she couldn’t sightsee. “Last year Ron and I visited 20 countries in 107 days during which time I smelled fermenting barley at a whiskey distillery in the highlands of Scotland; I heard Big Ben chime ‘12’ as I stood on London Bridge; I ate the freshest German pretzel at the oldest cloister brewery in the world; and I touched the Liberty Bell in the United States of America!” She has, she adds, learnt to interpret the world in a different way — not just the things in it, but the people too: “No tourist brochure mentions those you’ll meet along the way. Most people are magnificent and through their eyes I get to see their world. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Julie’s life mission is inspiration. She wants to be the person we think of if we, or someone we love, loses their sight, “so that you know it’s not the end of life, but a new beginning.”
Being such an inspiration to so many others, I finish by asking Julie what, or who, inspires her.
“Other blind people inspire me. I’ve watched blind people do the things I thought I couldn’t and they have helped me shift my thinking. Louis Braille, the 15-year-old French boy who invented braille inspires me. To think, after an accident in his father’s workshop that caused him to go blind, he then went on to invent a system of reading and writing that blind people all around the world would use to access the written word. And there’s Helen Keller too. She was the first deaf-blind person in the world to gain a degree, she inspired the world. All of these people have thrived amongst adversity and I find that totally inspiring.”