The following interview with Grace Mishler, Church of the Brethren member serving in Vietnam with support from the denomination’s Global Mission and Service office, is by Vietnamese journalist Löu Vaên Ñaït. It is reprinted here with permission. The article originally appeared Nov. 15 in English in the “Vietnam News Outlook” social section, a publication whose circulation is nation-wide:
The visually impaired struggle to be more independent by using a white cane that allows them to better integrate into society. “With my cane, I feel more independent in Vieät Nam. It’s my best friend here,” says American Grace Mishler, whose eyesight began to fail when she was 31 years old.
Today, at 64, Grace works as a consultant at the HCM City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Her work, which aims to raise public sensitivity and compassion about the disabled, is supported in part by Church of the Brethren Global Mission based in the US.
Grace settled in Vieät Nam 12 years ago after an initial three-week visit. Having travelled all over the country, she is never without her cane. When I arrived at her house for an interview, she insisted that she first demonstrate how to cross a busy street with the white cane. She showed me the moves which she had learned from her friend Leâ Daân Baïch Vieät, who studied mobility training for the blind in the US at the University of Pennsylvania. He later returned to teach blind people in Vieät Nam.
“Leâ was the master of mobility for visually impaired people. Unfortunately, he died from cancer after he set up the first mobility-training course in Vieät Nam,” she adds.
Grace says that most visually impaired people in the country do not know how to use the cane, and they often don’t go out because they feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. Few of them own a white cane, which began to be widely used in the early 20th century in France, the UK, and the US.
Her biggest concern now is that few blind people in Vieät Nam choose to use a cane. Without it, they stay isolated from friends and the community.
The three things that have helped her survive in Vieät Nam are her hat, sunglasses, and white cane, she says. “Even though the cane helps me, I know sometimes I can still get really nervous,” Grace admits.
She struck me as a woman of strong self-determination, with an iron spirit. She has had several difficulties in her life. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at aged 31, she later discovered that she had leukemia, which was successfully treated and remains in remission.
During her first few days in Vieät Nam, Grace says she felt odd when she stepped out onto the street, hearing the roaring sound of motorbikes. She often took a taxi or motorbike to travel because of her fear. She says the streets in Saøi Goøn can be difficult to navigate without assistance, from either a cane, a seeing-eye dog or another person. The pavements are often crowded with parking lots for motorbikes or kiosks, she says.
In 1999, before coming to Vieät Nam, she relied heavily on her cane during a five-week stay in India. Later, when she moved here, she found that the roads here were more organized than in India. During her 12 years here, she has not had any accident, except for one fall in a bathroom.
More young people in Vieät Nam are beginning to use the white cane, which helps them to walk and use public transport. Hoaøng Vónh Taâm, 18, who was born with a visual impairment, travels by bus to his university in District 3 from Nhaät Hoàng Centre for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Thuû Ñöùc District. He learned how to use the cane from teachers at the centre.
“Thanks to the cane, I travelled independently to high school, and now I can attend university,” says Taâm, who wants to become a tour guide.
A few weeks ago, Taâm got lost when he was going home because the bus suddenly changed route. He got off and began walking. “I was able to get home because of my cane and what I was taught,” he says.
Leâ Thò Vaân Nga, director of the centre, was trained in Australia in mobility techniques for the blind. Nga, who is not visually impaired, says the white cane is like a long finger for the people who use it. Without the cane, they can feel isolated from the community, refusing to participate in social activities or studies at school.
In Vieät Nam, there are only about 20 lecturers around the country who can teach mobility techniques for the blind. Nga said that when she studied in Australia, as part of her training, she was dropped in the middle of nowhere blindfolded, and had to find a way to return to a previously appointed location. In Vieät Nam, Nga teaches the same practical techniques as well as several theory classes. “Walking on the street, I understand the challenges that the blind face, and know the importance of the white cane,” she says.
She hopes to develop more orientation courses for the blind. “Even sighted people get lost, so the course is very important.”
Recently, four five-day courses on mobility techniques were offered to teachers at schools for the blind and other schools.
Symbol of independence
To raise awareness about the visually impaired, Vieät Nam celebrated the first White Cane Safety Day on Oct. 14, with 50 visually impaired people walking with their white canes down Nguyeãn Chí Thanh Street from Nguyeãn Ñình Chieåu Blind School in HCM City. The special day was initiated in 1964 by the US Congress in a joint resolution that designated Oct. 15 as White Cane Safety Day. Renamed Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama this year on Oct. 14, the day recognises the contributions of Americans who are blind or have poor vision.
“On this day, we celebrate the achievements of blind and visually impaired Americans and reaffirm our commitment to advancing their complete social and economic integration,” Obama said.
Not only does the white cane offer protection and help the visually impaired live independently, it also alerts motor vehicles and pedestrians to yield the right of way to the person using the cane.