In some parts of the world, to be blind is a life sentence.

That was something Steve La Grow saw first hand when he travelled to Mongolia in 2012.

The Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation and former Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Health had been in Mongolia providing training on mobility (getting around unassisted) for blind people, but left not knowing whether his project would succeed.

"When I went to Mongolia, [blind people] had no mobility whatsoever, a very limited life. They either stayed home or lived at the Blind Foundation and did menial work there and never left it."


He trained four people in a three week period with no support, and had no idea whether it would be successful.

When he returned in 2013, he met a 25-year-old blind woman with a husband and children
who had been taught by one of his trainees. The transformation was astounding.

"She was a mum with a nomadic herding family and she was blind from birth. She had never been outside of the yurt on her own in her life."

When Professor La Grow met her a year later the family had shifted to [capital city] Ulan Bator and her whole life had changed.

"Her kids were going to school in the city and she had a job. I met her getting off the bus with her two children. She walked them to their school, dropped them to school and walked to her place of work and at the end of the day she would pick them up and reverse it.

"She would have spent the rest of her life inside that yurt if this hadn't happened for her. She just couldn't quit smiling."

It is work like that that saw Professor La Grow last month awarded the Suterko-Cory Award, a prestigious award which recognises the impact of the work that people do beyond the borders of the countries in which they live.

Steve La Grow training mobility instructors in Myanmar.
Steve La Grow training mobility instructors in Myanmar.

He has taught professional training programmes to mobility instructors in Mongolia and Myanmar, worked directly with blind people in Sumatra and conducted numerous research projects with international colleagues.


Now retired after 28 years teaching and research at Massey University's College of Health in Palmerston North, Professor La Grow says working to help improve blind people's mobility has been incredibly gratifying.

"In a lot of countries where the attitudes haven't changed and the provision of services haven't come around, there are still people all over the world who are stuck.

"It's almost like a life sentence in a few places to be blind, and that's why the award's special because it's about reaching out beyond your borders to try to help people and spread it, and you can only do it if you teach others.

"When you do hit a place like Mongolia or Myanmar where they've never had this stuff and you see the dire straits that people are in and then you see what becomes of them, it's just wonderful."

He retains the title Emeritus Professor after retiring to Taupo two years ago for the fishing.

Originally from Michigan, he came to New Zealand from Western Michigan University in 1988 for what he thought was a three-year stint setting up the country's's first accredited mobility programme for the Blind Foundation.

He loved it and stayed, and says that was partly because Massey supported him being able to travel overseas to teach mobility, over and above the work he did at the university.

He says the biggest issue for blind people is orientation.

"It's how to maintain your knowledge of where you are in space and how to get from there to where you want to be. The mobility part is actualising that, and the main part is getting around safely.

"You've got to build certain skills in order to be able to do certain things. First of all you have to make sure you feel safe and comfortable so we systematically build those skills but the other thing we do that's extremely important is that we build people's sense of belief in themselves and sense of confidence in themselves.

"If you were to suddenly lose your sight, part of the problem is that you wouldn't know what to do, but another is that you wouldn't necessarily believe that you can do it.

"Whether you've lost your ability to get around because you're blind or too frail or lost your ability to drive or whatever, if you're stuck at home all of a sudden your world just shrinks and it's pretty awful."