Outdated social views, lack of awareness and poor infrastructure create an even more difficult life for people with disabilities in Vietnam. But progress is being made thanks to the work of experts in the field and determined disabled people. By Michael Tatarski. Photos by Fred Wissink.
When Nguyen Thanh Duoc, a warm, smiling man who looks younger than his 31 years, was only two, his parents abandoned him at the door of an orphanage for disabled children in District 3. He has no memory of his father or mother, and he doesn’t know why he lacks the ability to use his legs. “My parents may have left me for a combination of reasons, because of the disability, perhaps because they were poor,” Duoc says. He lived in the orphanage from 1985, when he was found, until it closed in 1998. Stories like this describe the lives of countless other disabled people in Vietnam.
There are no concrete statistics on how many people with disabilities (PWD) live in Vietnam. According to the 2009 census, more than 6 million people over the age of 5, or 7.8 percent of the population, have a physical disability. However, in 2010 the World Health Organisation put the number at 15.3 percent, a figure the government disputes. It is important to point out that these figures don’t only count people with mobility disabilities, but also the blind, deaf, mute and disfigured.
Though there is little agreement on how many disabled live in Vietnam, one indisputable fact is that this group is at a huge disadvantage compared to the non-disabled. Data from the United Nations Population Fund shows that the literacy rate for disabled adults is 76.3 percent, compared to 95.2 percent for other adults. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 14 percent, while it is just 4.3 percent for the rest of the population.
These figures tie into one of the biggest problems facing the disabled population: access to education. Duoc is out of the ordinary because he graduated from university and has a white-collared job.
“Very few of the disabled orphans I grew up with went to university,” he says. “They stopped schooling very early, and most of them are now lottery ticket sellers or menial workers.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, someone with no legs crawling along the side of a busy road trying to peddle tickets, or a blind person approaching tables at a roadside eatery is a common sight. Sadly, this is far as many with disabilities get here.
Of course, the challenges they face begin long before they reach university or working age. A widespread lack of understanding of disabilities leaves many people unsure of how to deal with the disabled.
Shannon Hopkins, director of Operations at Kids First Enterprise, says “Some people believe that a disabled child is punishment for a past sin, so there is still an issue with families hiding them out of shame.” Sometimes this prevents disabled children from getting even a basic education.
Duoc says, “Many friends have told me that their parents didn’t send them to school because they thought it was a waste of time to send a disabled child to school. They saw no future for them.”
School is one area where the perception that people with disabilities are different is particularly strong. The disabled are often socially ostracised or ignored.
“When I went to secondary and high school most of my classmates didn’t really like to play with me … I didn’t really have any friends,” Duoc says.
I meet Vo Thi Hoang Yen down a quiet sidestreet in District 10 at the Disability Resource and Development centre, where she is the founder and director. She tells me about how she contracted polio when she was only two and a half years old and lost the ability to walk normally. When she went to junior high school she was teased, and the other students made it clear that she was different from them. It didn’t help that many of her classes were on the third or fourth floors, and there was no other option but to use the stairs.
Such treatment has a major impact on the psychology of the disabled, leaving many with low confidence and a belief that they are worthless. “It’s the way people treat them,” Yen says. “When you are disabled and you show confidence people say, ‘Oh, you don’t need any help.’ As a result many PWD act helpless so that they can receive aid. It’s a role to play.”
Then, on a more basic level, there are the struggles of everyday life beyond work and school. For example, while in university Duoc used buses to get around. However, if he was waiting at a stop on his own, the drivers would cruise right past him. Only if other people were waiting for the same bus would it stop, and even then there were problems.
“Every time I got on it was scary because the drivers didn’t stop long enough for me. It takes time when you can’t use your legs,” he says.
A fairly common mode of transportation for people with disabilities here are motorbikes with three rear wheels. Though they may look comfortable, Yen says that they are actually extremely difficult to use. “Those bikes are unstable. When you drive you have to use your strength to keep balance and it’s very easy to fall over if the surface is uneven, which it usually is. As a result a lot of people who use these bikes have shoulder problems.” Modifying a standard motorbike into one that a disabled person can use is also very expensive.
Given these myriad challenges, how does a disabled person forge an independent life in Vietnam?
It takes a stubborn, determined person to fight through their physical impairment and society’s prejudices to become successful. Yen admits she is such an individual. Growing up in a remote village in Dong Nai province, she taught herself English after realising she could make money by tutoring. Thanks to her language skills and a voracious appetite for reading, Yen learned about the global disabled movement.
As she moved on to university Yen began participating in some of the first large-scale activities aimed at raising awareness on the disability issue here. In 2000 she formed a group with 12 other people and set up a photography exhibition on the everyday lives of people with disabilities in Ho Chi Minh City. The project received funding from Save the Children UK and attracted more than 2,000 visitors, as well as media attention.
Thanks to the prominent role she played in the exhibition, Yen was invited to a conference on independent living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here, for the first time, Yen saw what was possible.
“I was surprised to see people with severe disabilities who were directors and managers and living active lives. I decided then that this was something I wanted to bring to Vietnam,” Yen says.
She received a Ford Foundation scholarship which she used to get a master’s degree from Kansas University. Upon graduating she returned to Vietnam, received a $95,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, and opened the Disability Resource and Development centre. Yen hasn’t looked back since. Today her centre plays a prominent role in the disabled community, and is currently organising a fundraising campaign called One for Change that Yen hopes will pay off in the construction of a large, handicapped-friendly centre somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City.
Yen has seen a noticable improvement for Vietnam’s disabled, but believes not enough has been done. “Many students tell me that when they try to find a room to stay in they are turned down because of their disability. Applying for jobs is not easy. People say if I hire a normal person I can ask them to do anything, but PWD can only stay in one place,” she says.
Duoc agrees that things are better than they used to be, but there are still major problems, including housing. “Usually cheap places are down a small alley so it’s hard to access on a wheelchair or a motorbike, and the interiors are not handicapped friendly,” he says.
Despite these remaining issues, the future does look brighter for Vietnam’s disabled. Several recent government initiatives will help, if they are fully implemented. The National Action Plan to Support People with Disabilities for 2012-20, crafted by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, will provide vocational training and jobs for 250,000 working-age disabled. The Inclusive Education by 2015 plan aims to provide education for all disabled children.
Kids First Enterprise, which manufactures mobility devices for distribution to poor people in Vietnam, is working on a major awareness campaign that will target every level of society. Roger Ferrell, the enterprise’s president, says a big focus of the campaign will be on people with disabilities as individuals. “They have been raised believing that they have no value, that they can’t make a contribution to society,” he says
The campaign will also reach out to employers. A few years ago Ferrell took a group of Vietnamese managers to the US to show them how the disabled can be included in the workforce. One point the trip underscored is that disabled employees are more reliable, more dependable, value their job more, and are more valuable employee. Hopkins, the operations director at Kids First, emphasises the importance of helping business owners recognise the usefulness of disabled people.
“Companies here don’t even know how they can employ PWD. So it’s not about rearranging furniture, people need to see that PWD are capable of being in the workplace in the first place,” she says.
Yen’s centre is focusing much of its energy on employment as well. “Most of the organisations that work with PWD focus on charity, and we don’t do that. We provide workshops, training and values,” Yen says,
Gemma Thompson, project manager at Kids First and an expert on disability issues who spent five years with United Response, a major charity for the disabled in the UK, believes this is exactly where people need to focus. “There are lots of great organisations and charity projects in Vietnam, but the problem, as far as I see it, is most of the time they are crisis management rather than preventative services,” she wrote in an email.
Another crucial part of the disability issue is access. Thompson explains that an important thing to realise is that access doesn’t simply mean wheelchair ramps or handicapped-friendly lifts. “Less than 5 percent of PWD worldwide are wheelchair users, but it is the first image that pops into the public mind when they hear the word disabled,” she says. “Access may be changes to buildings, or support provisions such as loop aids for people who are deaf, easy-read information for people with learning disabilities, or audio support for people who are blind, but it also has to be changes to the norm, changes to business attitudes.”
In a country where a potent mix of causes, from traffic accidents and malnutrition to unexploded ordnance and a poor healthcare system, means Vietnam will always have a large number of people with disabilities, these societal changes will be a huge factor in determining how well they can integrate into the rest of the population in the future. Certain foreign and domestic organisations are a huge help, but it will ultimately come down to the attitude of the average person on the street.
“Disabilities are not going to fade out, in fact the numbers are growing. They are not the barrier to inclusion, society is. We must change environments, attitudes and organisations, and everyone is included in this,” Thompson says.