Blindness Can't Stop Skydivers

by Mike Patty

From the Editor: NFB adult training centers make a point of helping their students push their limits. Once you have succeeded at white-water rafting, rock climbing, carpentry, or single-handedly feeding forty people, you find it hard to picture yourself as incompetent and helpless. So, when several students began talking last winter to Colorado Center staff about their wish to go skydiving, it was hard to think of reasons for not doing it. Julie Deden, Center Director, didn't even try. In fact, she agreed to go along. After all, it's healthy now and then for everyone to push back the limitations we place on ourselves.

So Colorado Center students and staff began making arrangements to go skydiving for the first time on April 15. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. A mid-spring snow storm put an end to the outing, and it was rescheduled for Sunday, May 21. This time no snow appeared, so off the group went.

I asked Julie Deden afterward whether she had enjoyed the experience. The best she could say was that she was glad she had done it. She had not been prepared for the noise during the free-fall portion of the jump. But if Julie Deden was less than euphoric about the experience personally, others in the group made up for it with their enthusiasm and delight. The press, as well, found the notion of twenty-six blind people jumping out of an airplane worthy of some attention. Moreover, they got the story right. This was not a nine-days' wonder with no connection to good rehabilitation--this was part of an extraordinary program that enables blind people to regain their self-confidence and return to their lives as fully participating, contributing members of their families and communities.

On Tuesday, May 30, MSNBC conducted a five-minute interview with Julie Deden and Buna Dahal, a member of the staff. It provided Julie and Buna an excellent opportunity to describe their experience and explain its value in the context of an effective rehabilitation program.

The following is an article that appeared in the May 22, 2000, edition of the Rocky Mountain Times. Here it is:

Twenty-six students and staff members of the Colorado Center for the Blind jumped Sunday from an airplane more than two miles above Longmont's Vance Brand Airport. They did it for the same reasons sighted people skydive: to test their character and for the plain thrill of it.

Julie Deden, the center's executive director, said Sunday's jump at the Mile-Hi Skydiving Center was the first for all twenty-six. "As far as I know, it's the first time anywhere so many blind people have skydived on one day," Deden said.

All made tandem jumps with Mile-Hi instructors.

The idea for a skydiving outing came from David James, a recent graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind. "I used to ride Harleys before I lost my sight two years ago," James said. "I can't do that anymore, but I miss the adrenaline rush."

James said losing his sight in his late forties nearly destroyed him. "There was a time when I would get up every morning and had to look hard for reasons not to put a bullet in my brain," James said. "But the people at the center knew what I was going through. I wouldn't have made it except for them. My first week at the center I had to hang sheet rock, cut a Christmas tree, and make quiche."

Soon, James said, he regained his sense of hope. "I learned how to do all the things required of living," James said. "I figured, if others can do it, so can I."

Eddie Culp, a blind instructor at the center, was the first one out of the plane Sunday. "At first there was a tremendous rush, then it felt like I was floating in a dream," Culp said. "It was over too soon."

Culp said it is important for blind people to push their limits and learn to overcome self-doubt. "Most of life is about believing in yourself," Culp said. "My philosophy is don't let fear put out the fire."

Laura Connors, who lost her sight sixteen months ago, said she had long fantasized about skydiving.

"It was always in the back of my mind if I had the guts to do it," Connors said. "When I had the opportunity, I didn't want to let it pass."
Connors said it got very scary at the door of the airplane over the drop zone. "But I did what you do when you are scared: just take some deep breaths and do it," Connors said.