It’s the kind of day that requires a yellow scarf, for both its added cheer and warmth. I’m tired from too many hours on my feet the day before and my body is informing me that I’ve missed my usual morning caffeine fix. I’m aware of the weight of my limbs as we approach the building, feeling a little more at odds with gravity than usual.
Meeting Julie Deden wards off the grey melancholy that has nestled into my ribcage this morning, and I feel it stretch, yawn and amble out of sight. She greets us, smiling, and there’s something about her smile that tells me it’s the real thing. Too many smiles function as currency exchanged upon first meet, summoned by social expectation. Julie’s is genuine, earnest, electric. She’s a pocket of glowy warmth for us on this cold day.
Julie has been Executive Director of the Colorado Center for the Blind, an organization that sits nestled between a park and a rose garden in Littleton for 15 years. She is a mother, a leader, an activist and a mentor. She has also been blind since birth, a fact that has not hindered her ability to lead a full and happy life.
The Minnesotan-born Colorado transplant grew up in the no-nonsense embrace of her mother, who she credits for not coddling her as a child.
“It didn’t matter whether I was blind or not,” she says. “She would always push me and I was expected to vacuum, clean the bathroom, do household chores.”
But Julie wasn’t always as comfortable with her blindness as she is now. As a sociology and women’s studies major at CU Boulder, she shied away from using a cane, hoping that classmates and passersby would not immediately recognize her as blind, even though she thinks this fact may have been made quite apparent by the fact the she read Braille.
“I memorized where everything was on the CU campus,” she says. “I knew exactly where the steps were and I attempted to use my vision to figure stuff out though my vision was really bad. It didn’t work out so well, you guys.”
She addresses us with familiarity, tapping on the table for emphasis in what occurs to me to be a less risky alternative to hand gesturing without visual awareness of the immediate surroundings.
It wasn’t until her increased involvement with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in college that she began to embrace the benefits of using a cane. She describes meeting a variety of other blind people involved with the NFB, each of whom were incredulous at her resistance to use a cane to navigate.
“They were running circles around me, and here I was, kind of limiting myself,” she says.
She has worked as a leader and counselor in a variety of different capacities including at the Boulder County Safehouse and the Center for Disabilities in Boulder. She credits much of her gumption to the positive enforcement she found in the NFB community and has taken their can-do message to heart.
“If you have that confidence and belief in yourself you can pretty much do anything that you like to do,” she says. “If we’re nervous about doing something or we have a little bit of fear or something, push yourself, challenge yourself, and not settle to do less.”
She sees parallels between the philosophy of the NFB and her own feminist beliefs when it comes to empowerment and women speaking for themselves.
“We’ve made so much progress as women and yet in some ways we haven’t,” she says. “I wish there were a lot more women who were proud to say that they’re a feminist and be proud to continue to work hard for the rights that we have because I get worried that we see erosion. We have to be strong to not let that happen.”
And when asked about the challenges of being a blind woman, Julie describes the public’s unfortunate tendency to assume that blind equals helpless.
“The general public can sometimes be very custodial,” she says. “I went to Baltimore over the weekend on Sunday, and when I was traveling back this woman who worked at the airport said ‘I will come with you through the whole airport.’ And I said ‘I really don’t need you to, I travel all the time, I find everything I need to find.’ And she pretty much attached herself to me. She said, ‘No, no, no, no. I will come with you.’”
She recalls times as a young mother riding the bus with her toddler and receiving comments about how nice it must be to have her son to care for her. She laughs as she relays the story, making no mistake to clarify that, of course, she was the caretaker and not vice versa. But sitting with her, despite her good-natured reflection, I can imagine the frustration that might come with the constant assumption of weakness.
“If you’re not around really positive dynamic people it’s easy for people who are blind to lose that confidence and fall into the trap of thinking maybe I don’t know where I’m going or maybe I do need all this extra help,” she says.
Julie has found an antidote to the fog that creeps in and fosters doubt, perhaps the kind that exhausts the body on chilly days. Today, her boisterous cheer is my antidote and a comforting reminder that conversations with kind women are the best kind of pick-me-up.