She’s also on the way to writing a million names in Braille
The crowd protested when the female referee brandished a card at one of the players in a game of nude touch rugby: “What are you, ref, blind?” Well, yes actually, she was.
Julie Woods was the physical representation of a classic New Zealand rugby insult hurled at referees up and down the country – with a genuinely blind ref the brainchild of the late, great Colin Meads who suggested it to organisers of the nude touch rugby games often played in Dunedin ahead of All Black tests.
Woods is, however, far more than that – a gung-ho blind person determined to demonstrate that, as she says, “blindness wasn’t the end of my life; it was just the beginning” and one of the enthusiastic observers of World Braille Day (held on January 4) to celebrate the birthday of Louis Braille.
Woods has now reffed three such games – it’s all about fun, of course, and there was plenty of it. One match was interrupted by a streaker, fully clothed, of course. The streaker was then “arrested” by a policeman, wearing only a helmet. “I have to say,” says a wry Woods, “those games were times when I was perfectly happy to be blind.”
Woods’ personal mantra as a blind person is “Why not?” That’s how, as someone who knew little about the game, she came to be refereeing nude touch rugby, helped by a sighted person. But this redoubtable 56-year-old from Dunedin has taken “why not?” to levels that put most sighted people to shame.
To hear Woods tell her story is to listen to a woman whose resolve to enjoy life – and to connect ordinary folk to blind people and those with other disabilities – has come through her own determined outlook and the support given by Blind Low Vision NZ (formerly The Blind Foundation), through whom she learned vital skills.
But it is her mindset which has set Woods apart: “Before I went blind [she was 31], I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I’d been partially sighted since I was 18 [through a juvenile form of macular degeneration] so I didn’t feel like I belonged in the sighted world or the blind world.
“I hadn’t connected or mixed with people who were blind and Blind Low Vision NZ helped me adapt – and I was suddenly mixing with people who were mowing the lawns even though they were blind, using chainsaws, running marathons.”
Woods’ own moment of clarity came when she turned down an invitation to go cross-country skiing: “I thought, phew, that’s pretty random; sounds dangerous. I could fall. But later I thought, ‘you stupid woman. What kind of blind person will you be if you say no to everything?’ So I didn’t – and I discovered how amazing it is when you are constantly out of your comfort zone.”
Since then, she has become known as That Blind Woman and, among many other things, a life coach, fundraiser and motivational speaker. Her activities – and this is by no means a complete list – show the depth of her passion for life:
The Seven Wonders of the World
When in Paris in 2009 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth, Woods scaled the Eiffel Tower to shout out “Happy Birthday” and, on the way home, went out of her comfort zone again when she and husband Ron Esplin visited Petra, one of the seven wonders. “It made me wonder about the six others, so we looked them up and decided to visit them all.”
Her favourite? The Taj Mahal “because I could touch and feel it – the engraved marbling and the semi-precious gems in the wall – exquisite craftsmanship. And yet I still get people asking me how I can go sightseeing when I can’t see. Easy – I can hear, smell, taste, touch. I keep a sensory diary of what I do and, to me, that’s just like a photograph.”
A million names in Braille
When Woods and husband Ron Esplin were in India, she wanted to show appreciation for a female hotel porter, Nhidi Pandey, who had helped them a lot. She fashioned a name card for Pandey, using her portable machine to print her name in Braille. When she gave this small gift to Pandey, she broke down in tears.
“It was a big reaction,” says Woods. “It was just the acknowledgement of her; it turned out she’d been working there for six months and no one had given her anything or recognised her at all.”
From that – and after listening to a radio interview of an artist aiming to do a million paintings to raise awareness of a cause – Woods decided to do a million names in Braille. Beginning in 2017, she and a small band of helpers are over 25,000 name cards so far: “It’s really about the connections and interactions with people; behind every number and every name is a person; we connect with those people.
“Sometimes people who are not blind or not disabled don’t know what to say when they come in contact with us. They don’t want to do anything wrong – and I understand that – but then they do nothing and just kind of end up ignoring you. So it’s good to have a connection which gets past that.”
Her ‘Why Not?’ mantra has been developed into a game designed to help others leave their comfort zones and Blind Low Vision NZ Chief Executive John Mulka says it’s vital for the community that people like Julie Woods are there to help awareness of Braille.
“We are proud to empower blind, deafblind and low vision New Zealanders with access to literacy, numeracy and even music in Braille,” he says. “Blind Low Vision NZ know, and people like Julie have shown, how powerful a tool it is – and we thank our donors for their support to enable us to teach Braille, and provide resources in Braille and other accessible formats to our community.”
It’s estimated 80 per cent of blind, deafblind or low vision people in full-time work read Braille. Outside of workplaces, many other New Zealanders are exposed to Braille and other tactile signals every day. Raised dots on elevator buttons, signage and even bank cards are just a few examples.
For more information: blindlowvision.org.nz