Most of us know the difficulty of learning a foreign language. Now, imagine the triumph of learning a foreign language, blind. Uyanga Erdenebold, has not only done that, but is also the recipient of the first Fulbright Scholarship awarded to a blind Mongolian student. Uyanga completed a Masters Degree in library and information science from Louisiana State University in 2009 and currently works full-time for the U.S Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
At age four, Uyanga was diagnosed with retinoid dispegmentosa. At age eight, she could no longer see the blackboard or read print books. By college, she could not see her reflection in the mirror. Today, she is completely blind. She recalled that at age 14, she realized the true nature of her condition and in that moment, life became a race for her. She could not imagine life without being able to see, and thought that being blind would be the end of everything. However, in her own words, she "refused to be a prisoner of her disability." Albeit the lack of material resources available in Mongolia for visually impaired persons with ambition and hard work, she finished high school and continued to the University of Humanities of Mongolia. Uyanga successfully completed university in Mongolia without ever once having access to an audio format book.
Uyanga began English language studies at age 16 out of necessity, for she had finished reading all of the available Mongolian braille books and the only braille books left to read were donated English books. Her efforts have certainly paid off, as she is a fluent speaker today. In December 2013, she was a featured panelist at Tedx Ulaanbaatar Women. In that 15-minute speech inspired by personal experience, she spoke of the difficulties and challenges faced by persons with disabilities in Mongolia. Uyanga underlines the fact that it was not lack of material resources, but in fact, lack of awareness and understanding of persons with disabilities that continues to be the most difficult obstacle in her path. I encourage everyone to watch as her story is not only inspirational, but offers an opportunity to expand your understanding and perspectives regarding the lives of those with disabilities.
Following the Tedx event, I pursued a follow up personal interview with Uyanga, accompanied by Gladys, the first seeing-eye dog in Mongolia. The interview was held at the Natsajdorj Library in the city center of Ulaanbaatar.
Below are direct excerpts from the interview:
On being blind:
"I'm a blind person, but I don't feel bad about it. Obviously, I wish I could see, but it is a different way of experiencing life. Everywhere, all around the world, when it comes to minorities or people with disabilities, we think of us and them. However, it is not really us and them. We are the same. We are people, but we have different abilities".
Her experience as a blind person in Mongolia:
"In our culture, the prevailing attitude toward those with disabilities is pity. I guess it might be a natural instinct, but people need to get over that and see that person as an equal and appreciate that that person might have interesting things and perspectives to share. I think that attitude comes from seeing disabled people differently, as people who stay at home and are taken care of. The same way we think about pets. We love them, want them to be healthy, good, well fed, but we don't expect them to do anything contributing to your household. They are there to love, to spoil. In the best of conditions that is what it is like. As an intelligent or capable person, that is very frustrating to say the least."
"It makes me feel frustrated when for example people make me feel like a small child. I went to the University of Humanities, at first, everyone was very distant. Both teachers and students. And when I came to a pub, they would ask what kind of juice I wanted. So, that is what I am talking about. They were super friendly, with the best of intentions, but they see me as a different someone. A someone who needs to be treated lightly; who doesn't party, doesn't drink. Someone who doesn't even know about actors, singers or hot stars."
Shifting attitudes in Mongolia:
"But I think attitudes are starting to change. Lots of people are willing to listen and talk about what we can do. In the past couple of years, I am starting to see that we [as disabled persons] need to let people know what we need, otherwise, how would they [the public] know. Therefore, we need to do something ourselves instead of sitting and talk about how unfair it is. I guess this is part of the reason why I spoke at the Tedx event."
On Speaking Out:
In 2011, Uyanga was featured on a televised interview on the Defacto Talk Show. The interview now has over 20,000 views on YouTube.
"[Filmed during a hurried lunch break, Uyanga notes that as for the Defacto Show interview], the effect was almost immediate. The next day, many people knew about Gladys and the attitude had changed. So now, my attitude towards media has shifted. So instead, of feeling like a victim or complaining about it, I think I should give people a chance to learn about Gladys, or me, or issues that disabled people face."
On being in the spotlight:
"My personal attitude is to just live my life. I just want to be an individual. I am perfectly happy to be part of the crowd and live my life in my own way. However, I am facing so much difficulty just trying to do that. It has put me in a position where I have to be in the spotlight. I have to come out and speak, so I can let others know what 'I need' in order to live my life normally."
"This applies to many people who have similar disabilities or issues. During one conversation with some of my friends who are disabled, I told them I do not want to be a role model and someone who comes out and talks. My one friend responded "for somebody for you in Mongolia that is very selfish". After reflecting on her words, I had a change in my attitude. I cannot just think about my life. I had the opportunity to get higher education. I have the ability to speak English, which makes it possible to reach a larger audience."
"If I speak out about myself, my experiences, the difficulties I face, and what I think we could do together, that is going to affect many other people's lives. At least the smallest thing I could do is speak out to educate them. I am becoming more open to that."
On being an activist:
"If I don't want to speak out, if I don't want to talk about it , the choice I am left with or the only option I am left with is to be hidden or to let it be alright for people to treat me differently. That is not how I want to live my life."
"If I want to live a fulfilling life, if I want to be someone who is a contributing member of society, and if I want to feel satisfied about my life and goals, then I really do not have a choice but to speak out."
"Speaking out, coming under the spotlight, it can be scary and intimidating. You are putting your life out there on display. You are talking about your feelings, childhoods, difficulties you face... that is a compromise. For people who are disabled like me, it is a necessary compromise in order to make people understand."
"My dream is where we have a society where we don't have to make people pity or feel bad for you in order to accept you. It is a society where we don't have to talk about our personal stories in order to understand us. Where people take it is a given that people who are disabled are not inferior or lacking."
On personal aspirations:
"I started this organization where we receive injured puppies or dogs and try to find homes for them. It is not on a big scale, we ran out of money since most of it comes from my own pocket. It has been very successful this winter. One of my dreams is to establish proper an animal shelter for the homeless dogs of Ulaanbaatar. Dogs are one of my soft spots... Because I owe it to dogs."
"In addition, my dream is to establish a modern library in Ulaanbaatar. As you can see in UB, there are not many libraries that are convenient, or places where people want to stay and read. I want to have a very nice, friendly library, where children, disabled people, elderly are welcome to read their newspapers. I see it as a friendly, sunny place where people would feel comfortable, read books and be happy."
Click here to view Uyanga's Tedx interview.
Click here to view Uyanga's Defacto Mongolian talk show interview.