Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Priest blazed trails for Taiwan's disabled

Rehabilitation services for the disabled across the nation have changed drastically over the past decades. Father Robert Ronald, a Jesuit priest who has helped pioneer psycho-social rehabilitation in Taiwan through the Project De-Handicap (更生復建中心) service center, took the time to talk to `Taipei Times' staff reporter Caroline Hong about his experiences improving conditions for the disabled

By Caroline Hong  /  STAFF REPORTER

PHOTO: SEAN CHAO, TAIPEI TIMES

Taipei Times: How did you become involved in rehabilitation work here?

Father Robert Ronald: I never in all my life expected that I'd do rehabilitation work. But in 1957, I came to Taiwan to study Chinese, and after one year I got polio. Polio was very prevalent in Taiwan in those days; I picked up the virus from someone. The result was that I had to be sent back to the States to do rehabilitation because in those days they didn't have rehabilitation services in Taiwan.

When I first went back to the States, I didn't know anything about polio, and I expected that after a year or two, I'd regain enough strength to come back to Taiwan. But I found out that I wasn't going to get better. The doctor told me, don't even think of going back to Taiwan. You won't be able to walk, and how can you serve as a priest if you can't even walk up the church steps? And that was the first time I thought that might be the end of my Taiwan career.

But then, as time went on, I started to recognize more and more disabled people, and I found that even though they were in wheelchairs, some were driving cars, many of them were going back to work; they were leading normal lives. And I began to think that, well, the work of the priest is using your head and mouth, not feet. So why can't I continue? And then I also thought if I'm going to go around in a wheelchair, I might as well go around in Taiwan as in the States.

After I came back to Taiwan a year later to finish my Chinese, I then went to do four years of theology in the Philippines and then did one more year in the Philippines doing pastoral work, working as a chaplain in the National Orthopedic Hospital in Manila.

There, I lived in the spinal ward with people who were severely disabled. I was giving them counseling and encouragement. People kept on suggesting to me, why not continue working with the disabled, and I thought to myself, well, I don't think that just having a disability in itself is enough criteria to make me qualified. So I decided to return to the States, and I studied at the University of Arizona and got a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling.

When I was finished, I came to Taiwan. And fortunately, the [Taipei] Veteran's General Hospital (台北榮民總醫院) was willing to hire me as a consultant for vocational rehabilitation. I did that for 31 years.

TT: Can you talk about your work with Operation De-Handicap?

Ronald: When I first started working at the Veteran's Hospital in 1971, the Veteran's Hospital had a pretty good physical medicine department, as did many other major hospitals. And in other hospitals around the island, there were also beginning to be physical medicine departments. So, in that regard, Taiwan was not far behind the rest of the world; they were already starting to make progress.

But I quickly came to realize that once the patients left the hospital, there was almost no support at all. It was in 1974 that I was thinking about maybe starting some sort of service myself. Fortunately, I had a close friend from Hsinchu, Ignatius Huang (黃智才), a very capable fellow who agreed to help me. So we founded Operation De-Handicap on Xinsheng S. Road (新生南路) in Taipei.

The purpose of rehabilitation is to help a person who has become disabled because of some malfunction of his normal physical or mental functions. It works to help him restore those functions, so that he can again do those things that he did before.

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