A sense of God’s call and purpose for her work has sustained her over the years, as she has adapted to a new culture and language and taken on a wide variety of responsibilities.
Grace was struck by the high numbers of blind persons in Ho Chi Minh City, and she believes that greater risk of visual disabilities is one of the long-term consequences in the post-war era. It appears that increased visual disabilities may arise from exposure to Agent Orange and other environmental hazards, though they may be worsened when quality diagnosis, prognosis, and course of treatment for eye care are limited.
Grace (left) visits with the mother of a blind infant
Grace anchors her responsibilities in work at the university, where she teaches in the Department of Sociology, consults with staff, and supports students with visual disabilities. She also works with blind students at the Thien An and Nhat Hong schools for the blind, helping them to access eye care that will prevent further loss of vision. Yet another aspect of her work is working to increase public sensitivity and awareness. Grace receives support from the Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service.
In recent years, Grace’s ministry in Vietnam has focused on the needs of the blind community. When she learned that the university had 13 enrolled blind students with no academic infrastructure to support their abilities and disabilities, she started reaching out to these students herself. Knowing how crucial such support is for blind persons to achieve equity and educational success, Grace saw unmet needs and realized that she, in collaboration with the university and community, could make a difference. The support she offers ranges from helping students to access quality eye care, to making sure textbooks are available in accessible formats. She serves as a positive role model and mentor, encouraging and empowering students with visual disabilities to achieve their dreams.
Despite the presence of many blind persons in Vietnam, stigma, cultural beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes about blindness continue to be barriers in education, workplaces, and community life. Many blind people are embarrassed to stand out as different and are reluctant to take advantage of the white cane as a tool for navigation and increased independence. Without it, however, they stay home and lose many opportunities. Grace’s concern for their isolation led her to actively promote International Cane Awareness Day, an annual event that raises public awareness about the white cane and increases confidence of blind participants to use it. This event brings sighted students and students with visual disabilities together, working to shape community attitudes.
Practicing for Cane Awareness Day
Through Grace’s work in Vietnam, she finds that blessings come back to her in abundance. Before she began her first Vietnam assignment, she sensed God telling her she would find tremendous love there. “I remember hearing God say there are people waiting to love you, and you will love them,” she recalls. Grace treasures the love she now gives and receives.
Grace’s work in Vietnam has renewed her sense of purpose in a role where her visual disability is an asset, rather than a liability. Grace has learned to value the way of life she has found in Vietnamese culture, which is less stressful and performance oriented. “I am more independent in Vietnam than I am in the U.S.,” she noted. Grace attributes this to greater public transportation access in Ho Chi Minh City, compared to more limited options available at home in the U.S.
Grace gradually began to lose her vision at age 31, due to retinitis pigmentosa. At first she was reluctant to use a white cane herself, because it would be an admission that she had a disability, which she found hard to accept at that time. However, growing clarity about her call to serve in Vietnam gave her a reason to master orientation and mobility skills and gain the confidence she needed for living and traveling independently as a blind person. Those skills and confidence, in turn, have become an important part of what Grace has been able to share with others. Her social position in Vietnam encourages persons with disabilities to go out in public, become visible, go to school, and contribute to society. Comfortable with her disability now and well-loved in what has become her second home in Vietnam, Grace is able to share healing with others most of all, perhaps, because she has experienced healing herself.
Related stories and video
From Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service:
Global Mission and Service worker honored in Vietnam
From Vietnam: The Amazing Story of 30 Blind Students
Vietnam Holds Training with Slogan ‘Understanding Eliminates Darkness’
International Cane Awareness Day in Vietnam
The Silent American. 26-minute Vietnamese television documentary about the work of Grace Mishler. (English subtitles).
Christine Guth is Program Director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. Betty Kelsey, Grace Mishler, and Rebekah Flores assisted with this story.