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Ghost in the Machine

Posted on 23 May 2012 by Jason Chan (Meds 2014)

The heart is a pump. If it fails, an artificial heart can pump in its place. The lungs are balloons. When breathing is insufficient, a ventilator can inflate them. Mechanical models provide simple ways to understand organs and organ systems. They are also the basis of interventions that can be used when organs stop working. Is there a model for the brain?

Neurons and the nervous system function with inputs, processing and outputs. Neurons connect with each other to form circuits. They generate electric currents through action potential propagation. Myelinated axons can be likened to insulated wires. With all these characteristics, the brain can be thought of as a computer. Continue Reading

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Golden Key – An Organization Dedicated to the Education of the Visually Impaired in China

Posted on 02 March 2012 by Jonathan Fairbairn (Meds 2014)

This summer, four classmates and I visited several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during our five-week trip to China as part of the Medical Student’s Initiative in China (MSIC). These NGOs were often faced with many challenges including difficulty in securing funding, entrenched cultural attitudes, and problems faced by the sheer size of the population they wish to serve. Indeed from what we saw, it seemed NGOs as a whole in China tend to be generally less well off than those in Canada. However even among other Chinese NGOs, one NGO stood out from the rest in terms of the disproportionate need they sought to address and the resources with which they were equipped to do so. Nonetheless I was encouraged by the optimistic and passionate attitudes of its members in the face of such a challenge. I choose to write this article about Golden Key Research Center of Education for the Visually Impaired for such reasons.

Golden key focuses on education for the blind and low vision population in China. The organization was established in 1988. Their eventual aim is to have every blind or visually impaired child in China have access to education. China has a total population of 1.3 billion, 50% of which are classified as rural, and 15.9% of which earn less than $1.25USD per day. The liaison we spoke with, May, mentioned that Golden Key is the only domestic organization dedicated to promoting education for blind and low vision children in China. The headquarters in Beijing currently employs eight full-time workers, including May. To put it lightly, Golden Key has set a very ambitious goal for itself.
Indeed the state of education for blind and low vision individuals in China is lamentable. This problem is more severe in rural areas. In these areas, families of blind or low vision children are often poorly educated and do not have the knowledge or resources to handle the special needs of these children. To further exacerbate the problem, there is a wide-spread belief in many rural Chinese communities that disabled children are born as a result of the parents’ wrong-doings.

This can include wrong-doings related to directly to maternal or fetal health, or to acts which many Westerners would see as unrelated e.g. not abiding by Confucian social order. An example of the former, May reported, is when some parents try to abort a fetus by ingesting chemicals. This may be done for a variety of reasons, for example sex-selective abortions, attempting to abide by the one-child policy, born out of wedlock, and so on. The efforts of the parents may not always be successful, and can sometimes pose risks to the fetus. Thus, fearing shame and rejection from the community, parents often keep disabled children at home, and subsequently these children do not receive education.

The minority of blind and low-vision children who do manage to receive education are often faced by discrimination and stigma in the work force. For example, May brought up the example of a low sighted person who, when attempting to find employment, was consistently confronted by the belief that blind or low-vision worker would require more work on the part of the company. Part of the discrimination stems from Chinese culture, in which a large value is placed on conformity, and with a low tolerance for unorthodox or abnormal behaviour. Since blind or low vision individuals often have special needs or cannot fulfill roles in the same way that other non-disabled people can, these make them obvious outliers compared to the otherwise healthy and uniform population.

Overall, the current state of blind and low-vision support in China is one that lags behind the standards of many developed countries. However, as China’s economic progress approaches that of developed countries, there will be increased material wealth and likely increased access to education. Increased material wealth will hopefully lead to increased funding for domestic NGOs. Overall increase in access to education will hopefully make education more obtainable for the disabled, and help to soften some of the social and cultural beliefs held by the population at large, which poses such a substantial barrier to a disabled person’s education.

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