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Blind Battle to Make Their Way in Ulaanbaatar

In several ways, Lkh.Urtnasan's story is atypical for a blind woman living in Ulaanbaatar. Despite losing her sight after a severe fall as a toddler, she has a university education, has studied in America and taught English in Japan, and now runs her own business as a masseuse and English tutor. However, Urtnasan says she still battles many of the same challenges and barriers faced by other blind and partially sighted people around Mongolia.

For her, one of the largest stumbling blocks is a lack of faith in blind people's abilities. While Urtnasan's massage business does fairly well--a masseuse is one of the few occupations available to the blind in Mongolia--very few people solicit her English tutoring services after discovering she cannot see. Living in Ulaanbaatar, she struggles to traverse the sidewalks, where ruts, uneven cobblestones and uncovered manholes pose regular danger, while the tactile walkways for the seeing-impaired (found on some of the city's main streets) are often interrupted by billboards. Public transportation, though free for the disabled, affords additional problems, as no announcements are made about which stop is which. Urtnasan's partially sighted husband, B.Khadbaatar, and a cane help her navigate the city, but it's difficult, especially with the growing traffic problem in Ulaanbaatar.

"People don't understand the white cane," she said. "It can be very difficult just to cross the street." Mongolian National Federation for the Blind (MNFB) Executive Director D.Gerel agrees that Mongolia suffers from a lack of awareness about blind people's conditions. "The government and sighted people generally don't [appreciate] our situation," she said. Getting people to recognize the difficulties and the abilities of blind people has been the MNFB's primary goal for about 30 years, but grabbing the ear of the public and politicians presents another challenge itself. After some initial success during the Socialist period, the MNFB struggled to win support for the blind in the early 1990s, as Mongolia struggled to establish itself as a democracy.

Over recent years, the MNFB has had some success, establishing the Rehabilitation and Training Center for the Blind, a Braille and Talking Book Publishing Center, and other facilities and initiatives with the help of international donors, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and the government--although they have sometimes had to fight for support from the latter. Over the last ten years, the MNFB has staged three hunger strikes to protest policies it saw as detrimental to blind Mongolians; the most recent of which took place last year following a proposal to alter the subsidy for disabled transportation. The demonstrations have worked and taught the blind community a lesson, according to Gerel. "If we want things to improve, we [blind people] need to do it ourselves," she said.

Urtnasan, who is a member of the board at MNFB, knows things can get better. During time she spent studying and teaching English in Japan, she experienced just how smoothly blind people can integrate into society.

"In Japan, everything is accessible," she said. "Blind people are living like they are sighted." That is not the case In Mongolia.

"Most blind people stay at home," Gerel said. "It's difficult for them to go out and socialize." According to MNFB estimates, over 8,000 blind people live in Mongolia, and only about two percent of the working-age, sight-impaired population have jobs; they work mostly as masseuses at the MNFB's massage centres, at a state-run ger factory, or at the MNFB itself. The rest live off a Tg40,000 government stipend, and the help of their friends and family.

Addressing these issues will be a tall order, but the Federation believes that it has made progress. Currently, it is attempting to connect blind Mongolians to each other, and to information and people around the world. If the MNFB can expand its capacity, Gerel believes, the organization and the services it offers can help blind people educate themselves, and find a place in the workforce. In order to expand the jobs available to them, however, blind people will need the confidence of the sighted, and that remains hard to obtain, even for someone with the qualifications and entrepreneurial spirit of Urtnasan. As she attempts to save enough to start her own massage centre, Urtnasan says people's perceptions, as much as any policy, need change before the blind can thrive in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia at large.

Reprinted from the UB Post, February 19, 2009:

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