After losing his sight in a tragic accident as a young child, one young man has shrugged off stereotypes and expectations to carve out a life of achievement. His is a story that inspires all, and gives those living with disabilities cause to believe anything is possible. By Brett Davis and Jade Bilowol. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Sitting in a restaurant at RMIT University overlooking its modern campus buildings and landscaped grounds, Vietnamese student Nguyen Thanh Vinh chats animatedly in his almost flawless English about recently becoming an uncle and his imminent entry into a communications degree. He is like any 20-year-old with the world seemingly at his feet, full of confidence and eager for what is next to come.
“I don’t like to sit still,” he says. Because, while Vinh looks much like his fellow university students, clad in blue jeans and a smart button-down shirt, he has forged a path to this point that few, if any, of his contemporaries could ever imagine.
Losing his vision at a young age, and growing up in a country where those with disabilities are often shunned by even their own families, Vinh has defied any preconceived notions with his determination, intelligence and will to make something of himself.
Having lived away from his family since he was six years old, he says there have been many times he’s felt scared and lonely, but he’s always believed he would make it through. In these tough times, he says he just repeats to himself what he calls his slogan: “I keep saying to myself ‘everything is ok, nothing is impossible’.”
Toughest of beginnings
Rewind roughly 18 years ago when Vinh, born with full vision, was only 19 months old and living in Long An province, south of Ho Chi Minh City and the gateway to the Mekong Delta. “I was standing on the edge of the bed drinking a glass of milk and by accident I fell down,” Vinh says. “The glass broke and fragments went into both of my eyes.” His father rushed him to the hospital and the doctors removed the glass but Vinh’s eyesight had been snatched away from him.
Can he remember the incident? “I can’t,” he replies. “My family told me.” He says he has been able to see some different colours during some stretches of his childhood. Yet now he can only make out light and dark and large shadows and shapes, like clouds passing over the sun.
While he undoubtedly has a rare self-belief, Vinh also benefited from a fortunate environment that did not look at his disability as something that should prevent him from living a normal life. Vinh credits his parents and friends for “always being very fair with me” and helping to fuel his confidence and positive outlook on life. “They always treated me just like I was the same person as them,” Vinh says. “When I was young I was confident and believed I could do whatever possible.”
“Vinh grew up the same as everyone else,” says Nguyen Tan Hung, Vinh’s father. “His mother and I separated, and I raised him normally but I worried a lot.”
Unlike his supportive parents, some of Vinh’s friends have not been so fortunate. “Some families treat their children very badly if they have a disability,” Vinh says. “I have a very beautiful friend, but his parents don’t think that he’s useful. They treat him like he’s useless.”
Vinh says his friend’s parents are so ashamed of their son that when they have a visitor they “force him to stay away from the living room, locking him up upstairs or taking him to another person’s house. How can they do that?” Vinh asks rhetorically. “His parents are people who have knowledge, I don’t know why they act like that. I desperately want to change people’s minds.”
Yet Vinh says the onus isn’t only on society to overcome its prejudice towards the disabled. “We too have the ability and we need to change people’s minds,” Vinh says. “An employer may think that you can’t do this or can’t do that but we can show them that we can.”
Out in the world
When he was six years old, Vinh left home and started living at Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind in Ho Chi Minh City, returning home fortnightly for the weekend. His father says it was an extremely difficult decision, but one he thought was best for his son. “Though I love my son I sent him away to school,” Hung says. “He was very sad and cried a lot, but there were other students his age there, children who were also blind, so it was good for him.”
Vinh was required to wash his own clothes and take care of himself, instilling a sense of independence. When he was seven, Loreto Vietnam Australia Program (LVAP) founder Trish Franklin volunteered to help the school’s children learn English. “The first time I met him I thought he was such a cute little boy; he was so sweet and had this confidence about him, this spirit,” Franklin says. “It looked to me like he was sure he would be successful in life. He has continued to work really hard and now his English is amazing.”
Franklin recalls Vinh as a young boy running around everywhere even though he couldn’t see. “Around the playground, to the toilet, over to have a drink. Sometimes he’d crash into something but it never frightened him. He was always having fun – such a mischievous little boy.”
Vinh says Franklin, whose organisation has helped more than 28,000 disadvantaged Vietnamese children since its inception 16 years ago, is responsible for his love of English. “I have to say thanks to her and Loreto because I had the base to develop my English – she is fantastic.”
Along with English, Vinh also loved studying maths, chemistry and biology. During his time at Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind, he also had access to technology such as a screen reader – which converts text into audio – to help him with his studies.
After graduating from the Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind, Vinh studied for two years at Tan Tao University in Long An. This in itself was not a simple feat. “At first they were very worried about admitting a blind person,” says Vinh. “They were worried about if they could due to resources.”
Then, through volunteers working with LVAP, he discovered the possibility of applying for a scholarship at RMIT University in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 7. He submitted an application and eventually appeared before an interview panel of university officials.
One of those on the panel was RMIT University Disability Advisor Carol Whitney. “It was very clear to us that Vinh was extremely likely to succeed, which is what we were looking for,” she says.”His motivation, will to succeed and personal qualities shone through.”
Vinh says before he set foot on the Saigon South campus, he surfed the internet to determine what the broader community thought of the university and its students. “I read some things that didn’t leave a good impression and I felt worried,” he admits.
“But when I came here people were very kind and very friendly.”
His fellow dorm resident Trinh Anh Tuan says he took an instant liking to Vinh. After noticing Vinh was staying in a nearby room, Tuan called out to him, asking if he wanted some pizza. “He was a little shy at first but soon he was really confident and easy to talk with,” Tuan says. The fact that Vinh is studying at RMIT University is nothing short of phenomenal, Tuan says. “He gets high distinction and speaks English perfectly, even better than me. Everyone on the campus is really impressed by him.”
In addition to navigating the social aspects of his new environment, he also had to come to grips with its physical surroundings. Whitney was on hand to help guide him through the task of becoming familiar with the campus and going about the necessities of managing daily life.
“I spent two days with Vinh to help him map out his environment including walking to class and back, fire alarms, fire exits, shopping for food and for kitchen equipment,” she says.
“It was a challenge mainly because of the time factor. I wanted to get him in as quickly as possible so that he could start his English program. Vinh is extremely flexible and adaptable, and also very trusting that everything will turn out ok. He doesn’t rely on people here. He’s very independent and likes to be able to do as much as possible by himself.”
After recently completing the final level of RMIT’s English program, Vinh is now embarking on undergraduate studies in professional communication. “The program focuses on public relations and advertising, and I intend to focus on PR. I love building relationships and I think I’m good at communication,” Vinh says with a laugh. “Professional communication is the best choice for me.”
Anything is possible
On another day, we are sitting at a picnic table at the eastern edge of the RMIT campus, overlooking the lush lawn and banks of blooming flowerbeds. Beyond that a stream meanders by and it is, by any account, a beautiful day. Yet it is a scene Vinh can’t enjoy, as the glimpses of scar tissue on his corneas remind you.
However, after spending a couple of days with Vinh and experiencing the special brand of optimism with which he approaches life, it is impossible to not ask his secret for overcoming all the challenges he has faced. Although, the immediate answer is not what you would expect.
When life throws another obstacle in his path, Vinh says, one of the first things he tries to do is sleep. “The more I think [of the problem] the more scared I feel. But after I have a good sleep I feel calm and can think more carefully about how I can find solutions.”
The modest desire for some solid sleep time aside, there is also a fair amount of grit involved. “When I decide to do something, I strongly believe it will be successful,” he says. “I tell myself ‘I will be successful, I will be successful, I will be successful’.”
There is a genuine warmth about him and an appreciation for all he has received, particularly so far as his education is concerned.
“When I first came [to RMIT University] I felt scared as I knew no one,” he says. “I reviewed all the things I’ve done, how I’ve made it in life. I’ve overcome all of the difficulties. I got the scholarship and recognise the value it brings to me and I have the power to go on.”