29-year-old Federico Villa who suffers from a neurodegenerative disease travelled from Saigon to Hanoi in three weeks, exploring seven cities and taking five trains, two boats, three buses plus plenty of taxis and shuttle buses. Here’s his first-hand experience of journeying through Vietnam as a wheelchair user:
What do I think of when my thoughts go back to Vietnam, now that I am in Manila? People. The people we met for interviews and the random people we met, who eventually helped us during our trip.
Yes, they might have been a bit nosey sometimes. And I had to quickly get used to being pointed at while going around in the streets. People stared. A lot. Mainly, as far as I understand, because of the little electric wheel I attach to my wheelchair to go around.
I also had to get used to quite direct questions from strangers: how long have I been on a wheelchair? Was that because of an accident? Are my legs unresponsive?
I suffer from a genetic disease called Friedreich’s ataxia. It is a neurodegenerative disease, meaning that every year I get worse. I have been on a wheelchair since when I was 20 and, as it is degenerative, every new year means new problems or, as I prefer to consider it, new challenges.
This year’s challenge was Vietnam: is it possible for a person on a wheelchair to travel across this country on his own? I asked a friend of mine who works as journalist to join me.
We did not set any itinerary before leaving, nor did we book any hotel. We just decided to leave and see. The only thing we set before leaving were interviews with people with disabilities and NGOs, as I wanted to explore what disability looks like in a developing country.
I was most of the time surprised and even moved by the answers we got and the stories we heard. On the third day we were in Ho Chi Minh City, we met Colin Blackwell. Colin is the manager of Enable Code, an IT company where four out of four employees are disabled.
And, according to what Colin told us, he did not chose them because he wanted to do something good, but because they have the ‘nothing is impossible’ mindset that for his business is a unique asset.
I experienced personally how disability can be turned into a resource and this travel to Vietnam soon became the chance to explore this idea further. I became curious about how in a country where non-accessibility is a huge barrier for inclusion, people with a disability managed to get through.
In the end, my experience of Vietnam was exciting and challenging. There were of course a lot of difficulties (getting on and off trains and buses was sometimes tiring and finding an hotel with an elevator was not always easy) but at the end of the day one of the reasons I travel is to seek adventure and being challenged is one of the necessary ingredients.
People in general helped a lot, even though sometimes, especially on trains, they rushed for no apparent reason and I ended up more than once with my hands squeezed between my chair and the seats.
What is next? I want to share my experience and the tricks and tools that made my travel possible with as many people as possible. We are crowd funding for a web documentary to share these tricks and to encourage more and more disabled people to travel.
We also want to spread the inspiring stories of the people we met, in a country that never surrendered. Let’s share the world together and help me fulfill the dream to share my experience.
It will make the voices of disabled people from Vietnam heard and raise awareness on disability beyond the stereotypes.