Gerel Dondow

"DAISY books bring incredible progress to the lives of people who are blind. I understood and was delighted to learn about the difference DAISY books make for those who use them, and I am experiencing these benefits personally."

Gerel Dondow sitting on a bench by a river, December 2006We all face challenges, we all have aspirations. Ms. Gerel Dondow's major life challenges began when she was in university studying to become a lawyer. Those challenges changed her life forever and brought her to a leadership role as CEO in the primary (and only) organization for the blind in Mongolia, the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind (MNFB) a non-profit and non-governmental organization. )

"Is being blind a punishment?"

When I introduce myself I often say "I am a Mongolian" with full pride of being a citizen of Mongolia and being born in Mongolia. More than 80% of Mongolians are Buddhists, which dates back to the 14th century when Buddhism was first brought to Mongolia. According to Buddhist doctrine, everyone has pre and post life, teaching that any sins that we committed in our previous life are "paid off" in the incarnated spirit. Someone who is blind or disabled is therefore often seen as paying for their previous sins. Thirteen years ago I was a student at the law school of a university when I lost my sight making me think that it was a punishment for my previous bad doings.

Life gives us sudden surprises without asking us for our opinions. A healthy and young student-girl woke up blind one day – it was a sudden strike to my life. My mom had to leave her job just to take care of me, and it took me a long to time to accept that I had become totally blind, because it is incurable. Having looked for any organization or service that works for the blind in my city, and having failed to find one, life in darkness was just unimaginable to me. But I felt for my mother, because although her pain was greater than mine, she always tried to inspire me and provide encouragement for a better future for me. I had to think and ask myself what I could do to relieve her pain and how I could make her happy. This led me to realize that losing my sight was just a challenge which I needed to overcome.

So, four years after I lost my sight, I returned to university – I was the first and only blind person in the entire university. Without any books, braille resources or special facilities, and even without any understanding that a blind person can use a computer, I used a portable voice recorder as my key learning tool. My hard work and intense efforts brought positive results – I was ranked first in excellence in study in the senior years in the university. My dream was to become a good lawyer, but I needed to pass two main exams followed by another exam for attorney qualification. Again, I was the first blind person competing for this qualification. At the beginning the commission refused to give me permission to take the exams only because it was believed that a blind person could not do this job properly. I talked with them and they recognized that they did not have any right to refuse me. I successfully passed the exams, receiving a Master degree in law (LLM) in 2007, and was invited to work as a legal consultant for a commercial bank.

All these obstacles I faced as a blind person often strengthened my realization that our country has no favorable environment for blind people to be employed. Every case reminded me of this and reinforced this thought. I did not really want to be dependent on others for things like always having to ask someone to read aloud a document or provision in the law. This seemed to me to be extremely unfair, and so I was driven by my thought of changing this to be more 'friendly' for people who are blind. It was about that time that the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind (MNFB) offered me a position as a CEO, and I accepted in order to fulfill my dreams. Joining with other people who were blind would enable me to eliminate or decrease the obstacles that we often encounter, and working as a CEO in the Federation would provide an excellent opportunity. So, I started working as CEO of MNFB effective from 2006.

MNFB logo on plaque, labeled in English and the Mongolian languageI began to better understand the circumstances of blind people in Mongolia, things like how they live and what hardships they encounter. Mongolia is ranked 19th in the world in terms of its territory, with a population of barely 2.9 million, and with approximately 10,100 people who are blind. As of today, only MNFB is operating as a "for-the-blind organization", but its operation and service is limited to those living near the capital city Ulaanbaatar. The great majority of 7,600 blind people living in the countryside have no access to information, education or employment, and are driven by their thought that they are only worthy of their previous life's sins.

In contrast to this let's look at the situation in the other developed countries in the world! In my position as CEO I was able to visit organizations of/for the blind in Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, Malaysia, Thailand and China. I learned how the people who are blind in those countries live and work. Obviously, I saw a great difference but I endeavor to make the situation for the people of Mongolia who are blind bright and without discrimination – often I feel happy to be a part of the dedicated team of MNFB trying to achieve this goal.

Every morning I wake up with the knowledge that a new day brings new life and new happiness. In my life I often had many pleasant and good moments such as being the first to be trained in Malaysia in 2007 on OCT and ICT computer training, organized by the Japan Braille Library – I was so delighted to be able to use computers in my day-to-day life and work. At that time, I hardly believed myself that I was able to use a computer. Computers brought incredible progress in my life – in 2008 in Mongolia, MNFB opened the first computer training for those who are blind.

Since January 2010 I have been studying at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Kerala, India. During the study I had an opportunity for internship at an organization called Saksham, where I gained full scale understanding about DAISY and learned how to use DAISY books to the fullest extent. Yes, DAISY books bring incredible progress to the lives of people who are blind. I understood and was delighted to learn about the difference DAISY books make for those who use them, and I am experiencing these benefits personally. As an attorney I work with my friends on some cases and many people even approach me for counseling. In these cases I need to read various laws, not all, but the exact provisions related to the case. In the past, I used MP3 format for reading law but it is very time consuming to use and it is not possible to skip over or through the provisions. Now, with DAISY, I feel myself as a sighted reader, without having any difficulty with reading, easily navigating among the various provisions of legislations. This provides more efficiency and productivity. Introducing DAISY technology in Mongolia would be very beneficial especially for those studying in schools and universities.

Ulaanbaatar City Public Library (UPL) logoIn 2008, three blind people participated in DAISY training in Thailand. As a result of this, the project to produce DAISY books was implemented at the Ulaanbaatar City Library in June 2010. Simultaneously, we at MNFB also sent an editor from the MNFB printing center to DASKINY training in Japan; the editor's assignment to gain knowledge and skills in DAISY technology. A bright future is close for every blind person in Mongolia and the foundation for this bright future is already laid.

I would like to now emphasize what MNFB is planning to do in these new fields. I learned a great deal from the internship at Saksham and I've talked about my findings with MNFB staff to clarify how we can undertake activities in these fields in Mongolia. From January 2011, we will start to produce DAISY books in our talking book printing center. Currently the center works with a full time editor and one narrator. One advantage we have is that MNFB is moving into new premises at the end of 2010 and it is equipped with four studios. So we plan to utilize these studios to their full capacity.

Photograph of a Mongolian yurt, a portable dwelling used by nomads, with the Gurvansaikhan Mountains in the background, source, Wikimedia Commons, released under the GNU Free Documentation License, 2006How we can deliver these books to people who are blind is a serious question. Over one third of the Mongolian population often moves, searching for good pasture for their livestock, living a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle. In the vast territory that is Mongolia, the small population is scattered throughout the land. It is therefore definitely difficult to find the best solution to reach those who live outside of the main city region. What we are looking at as a solution is to establish an online library of talking books, enabling people who are blind to download and listen to the books via their cell phone. Some may say "It is a challenge for a developing country", but timely and effective information brings considerable progress in human development. We firmly believe that this method is the best option to provide all of the isolated and marginalized people who are blind with access to information and knowledge.

Obviously being blind is not the consequence of a previous life's sins – it is just one of millions of challenges that we need to overcome in life. I am confident that in Mongolia, people who are blind will understand this very soon, and we are working toward bringing this moment closer.

Editor's Note: Information about Mongolia, its challenges and achievements, is provided on the World Bank website. For further information about DAISY implementation in Mongolia and the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind (MNFB) please read the article Mongolia Discovers DAISY in the August issue of the DAISY Planet .