Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From Mongolia to GDB

Uyanga Erdenebold and her Guide Dog Gladys
Submitted by Uyanga Erdenebold

I remember standing at the airport in Ulaan Baatar with my family on that fine morning in August. My mother kissed me goodbye on my right cheek and said that she would kiss my other cheek when I got back home. Only then did I truly believe that I had finally made it. 

On that morning, I was flying to the United States of America to begin my two years of the master’s program in library and information science at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. One year before, I was sitting in a room of the Embassy of the United States in Mongolia, facing the Fulbright scholarship selection committee. I didn’t need to feel so nervous - a week later, I received a call saying that I was selected to receive the Fulbright fellowship. 

I was diagnosed with retinoid dispegmentosa when I was four years old and started wearing glasses. I have lost my sight over time to a degree that I can no longer see myself in the mirror. Being a blind person in a developing country is not easy. Imagine finishing high school and college having never had a single book in Braille or in audio format. I don’t know of a single school or library in my country that has any materials in Braille; even the country’s only high school for the blind has no textbooks for its students in Braille - aside from 30-year old elementary reading books. In my third year at college, I was introduced to audio books. As there were no audio books in Mongolia, it was a great discovery for me.  

I typically had to rely on the assistance of others to read materials to me, which I then typed into Braille. I was always dependent on others to help me and I felt I had little control over my own time. However, I am lucky to have such a great family and incredible teachers to support me in all my goals. With their help, I graduated from one of the well-known universities of Mongolia with top honors. Not all blind people in Mongolia are as fortunate. Because of the challenges, many have given up studying even though they have equal intellectual ability. 

I learned from many of my foreign friends about the opportunities and resources that the libraries around the world make available to their blind or visually impaired citizens, including audio book service. Although I did not have much opportunity to read, I have always been fascinated with books and reading. As someone who has confronted the problems of lack of literature for blind people every day, I have developed a special interest in libraries and their importance to the communities they serve. For all my life as a student, I dreamed of one day sitting in a library reading room and finding the materials I needed on my own. My ultimate goal is to establish a library or library service for blind individuals and other people who are disabled in other ways in Mongolia. So there I was, flying to America to fulfill my dream.  

After arriving in Louisiana, I was registered with the Louisiana State Library. I received audio books from the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). This service brings the world of literature to me. I enjoy it so much that sometimes I have to stay up late at night to catch up with my school work. 

Yet, i never thought that I would meet the very people whose voices I have come to know so well from the NLS books. However, in May 2008, my academic advisor arranged with the NLS for me to do a field study at their main headquarters in Washington D.C. During my three-week study, I was able to talk to representatives and heads of all the departments and sections of NLS and see the equipment and the facilities. The NLS staff was so generous with their time and they had a great willingness to talk to me and answer my questions even though I was no more than just a curious student full of big ideas and dreams but with no professional experience or support from any organization. It was a great and valuable experience for me.

There is yet another experience, a very new aspect of life that I discovered while in the United States. Since there is no mobility training for the blind people in Mongolia, I was never taught how to walk with a cane or a guide dog. As an individual and a young person, I want independence and privacy as much as other people do, something that wasn’t always possible in Mongolia. Upon my arrival to LSU, the school’s Office of Disability Services put me in contact with the Louisiana State Rehabilitation Services, which provided me with mobility training with a white cane.

The first time I touched a cane, I felt so insecure. I could not help thinking “This is just a stick, how can I trust my life to it?” The idea of walking with a cane did not seem welcoming or pleasant at first. However, as I practiced more with my tutor, I came to understand how much independence, opportunities and self-confidence a cane gives me. After having been accompanied wherever I go for all my life, a cane helps me to know what it is like to walk alone, to take as much time as I want to reach a certain place, to stop wherever I want to, and to enjoy traveling by myself. 

However, I soon realized that learning to walk with a cane was just a beginning and there was yet even more for me to discover: a relationship full of trust, love, and honesty that can only exist between a blind person and a Guide Dog. 

I got my guide, Gladys, a lovely little Labrador, in August 2008 from GDB's California campus. I cannot fully describe what positive changes Gladys brought to my life that I never thought about or experienced before. I think Gladys is one of the happiest things that happened to my life. Many people ask how is it different to have a Guide Dog than having a cane. Some blind people would jokingly answer such a question with: “Well, you never hear people saying what a beautiful cane you have,” or “Let us move you to the first-class compartment of the plane to give your lovely cane more space to rest.” With a guide dog you are no longer just blind - you are special. When I walk through the LSU campus with Gladys, I can feel the smiles and love she brings to people’s faces and into my life. Now Gladys is an official member of the family of the School of Library and Information Science at LSU. She never misses a class and attends all the parties. She is much loved by the faculty and staff. In fact, she is the only student who gets the dean’s administrative assistant to prepare her something to drink, and she is the only one who sleeps, sometimes even snores, through the most of the classes and still remains the favorite of all the professors. 

Gladys not only guides me through physical obstacles, but she also guides me through the emotional barriers and difficulties in life, something a cane can never do. She brought to my life a true companionship and a trust, both of which she gives me unconditionally, and I feel more confident and strong day after day, because I know I’m not alone no matter what. 

When I go back home this May, Gladys will be the first Guide Dog in all of Mongolia, and we will have many challenges to overcome. Since there are no guide dogs or guide dog schools in Mongolia, there are no laws or regulations protecting our rights to have access to public places. However, Mongolians are kind, hospitable, generous and open-minded people, and I’m confident that once introduced to the idea of guide dogs and how important they are to people like myself, my fellow countrymen will love and support guide dogs. I’m hopeful that our government will be willing to cooperate to provide the necessary legal protections to the very first guide dog and thus ensure the possibility of future guide dogs in Mongolia. Gladys and I have a long way to go and a lot to achieve. However, the longer the road and the harder the task – the more worthwhile the effort. 

5 comments:

  1. What an inspirationl story. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch this woman graduate last year and I hope that her life in Mongolia will be changed for the better because of her guide! =]

    ~Taelor and Pilaf

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope we can continue to hear more once you and Gladys return to Mongolia.

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  3. Gladys was raised in our club "Diamonds in the Ruff". I puppysat her on a few occasions. She was absolutely a sweetheart. I am so proud she will have such an exciting adventure.

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  4. Thank you for sharing! Uyangaa, your story was so inspiring.

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