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The interviews

“Disability does not mean inability. It’s a matter of adaptability”

Chris Bradford, the writer of this aphorism, is an American actor. Most of the disabled people we have met in Vietnam comply exactly with this attitude. Vietnam is a young and economically emerging country. But it’s also one of the countries with the highest rate of disabled people in the world. Out of 92 million inhabitants, 7 millions are estimated to be disabled, but in 2010 the World Health Organization spoke of about twice this number. It’s anyway a difficult evaluation, because two-thirds of disabled people live in faraway rural areas, mostly not accessible, and then because there isn’t a unique definition of disability.

Against architectural and social barriers

“ I have two university degrees and one Master, but when I was seeking work, everybody rejected me and my desperation led me to think of suicide. But at that point I realized I had to help those disabled people whose life was worse than mine.”
(Yen Vo – Founder of Drd Vietnam)

The impossibility to move around autonomously: Drd Vietnam underlines that this is the main and most evident limit for integration of disabled people in Vietnam. Why is the education level among disabled people the lowest? Because schools are not accessible. Why is it more complicated for a disabled person to find a job? Because most offices are not accessible. Why don’t you see many disabled people around? Because streets are not accessible. Drd, research center for disability and development of capacities, was established ten years ago in Ho Chi Minh City.

As soon as we contact them for an interview, they immediately ask if we want to use one of their three wheels-scooters. They are thirteen and they can be freely rented, with or without driver, by any disabled people who need to move around the city. The initiative was sponsored by a Korean no-profit company that offers a job, as drivers, to disabled people . Not only accessibility. Yen Vo tells us that Drd finances also scholarships ( thanks to a Japanese foundation), organizes traineeships and promotes campaigns for removing architectural and social barriers. The meeting with Federico provides an opportunity to exchange ideas and suggestions about devices. Vo and her colleagues are immediately attracted by Federico's electric wheel and they ask him to explain how it works. But the main problem in Vietnam is that it’s rather difficult to obtain even wheelchairs and even in that case, we are talking about 50 dollars value wheelchairs donated by foreign NGOs. Vo has two degrees, but when she was looking for a job, she was almost desperate since she was refused at each attempt. So she thought : if there is so much discrimination towards me, what does it happen to disabled people who don’t have the opportunity to study?

Yen Vo founded DRD (Disability Research and Capacity Development centre) in Ho Chi Minh City in 2005

During a Master in the States, Vo could individuate and study all the services and facilities for disabled people and trained in counseling and advocacy. Back to Vietnam in 2005, she was able to found Drd. We also meet Lieu Hieu who has been working for the organization since the beginning. When she knew about Drd, her life changed suddenly: she was not disabled from birth, she became paralyzed after an accident on her scooter when she was 17 years old and at the beginning she refused to go to school, to go out, to live. Thanks to Yen Vo, she overcame the difficulties and the shame she felt due to her disability. Rathan, a twenty years old student, shows us how these three-wheels scooters work. She tells us that also her three brothers and his father are disabled. She started school two years later owing to her disability but now she is ready and willing to fight in order to change things: “People expect us just to stay and be confined at home – she says –, while it’s our own right to decide what is better for us”.

The will to live. Fully

“ Many disabled people commit suicide because they are totally hopeless. Even with big efforts , my brother and I have managed to find a job in order to be independent . For this reason we felt it was our duty to share our experience with others.
(Nguyen Thi Van — Founder of Nghi Luc Song)

We meet Nguyen Thi Van thanks to Facebook and through a common friend ; she lives in an apartment 40 km. far from Hanoi downtown. When we arrive she is with some people and they are having a party for one of their friends, just arrived from Ho Chi Minh. We join the party and eat the cakes they have prepared.

A picture of Thi Van with her brother is hanging on a wall at “The will to live” center

Van is sitting on a mattress and she is quite busy with her laptop and mobile. She and her oldest brother Hung come from a village 300 km. far from Hanoi: they both were born with the same congenital disability. Hung died when he was 31 and doctors have predicted her death in four years. Van and Hung decided to found an association under the name “Nghi Luc Song” which means “The will to live” in Vietnamese. When Van was 20 she moved to Hanoi to seek work. “I was still at home and I was sending my curriculum everywhere – she recalls – when I happened to read an article about a guy from Vietnam who was studying in the States and was comparing disability in his origin country with disability in the States. The article struck me because he had perfectly grasped what it does mean to be disabled in our country”. Van wrote to him explaining that she had been looking for a job as graphic designer and that up to that moment she had collected only negative answers: he invited her to send her cv to a company in Hanoi, his own company. So Van started to work in 2008 and decided to move her association “Nghi Luc Song” from her native village to the capital.

Van shows us her tattoos, the logo of the association on her hand and the Tree of Life on her shoulder and talks with Federico about his trip, experiences and impressions about her country. “I and all the misshapen people are destined to be discriminated more than others – she says –. People stare at us, they are afraid and strongly embarrassed. They think that if you are disabled , you should stay at home. If I go to the hairdresser or go shopping and wear a nice dress, they tend to criticize me. People think that persons like me shouldn’t wear make up or a bright, nice dress, considering my behavior inappropriate.

Van has recently promoted a video “I am beautiful. You too” and has organized a fashion parade at Casa Italia, in Hanoi. After the final touchup to the lipstick , we start the interview.

The challenge for University education

“Most disabled students often don’t tell us they are in this situation: they are afraid of being discriminated, of not finding any job and moreover of losing scholarships because of their disability.”
(Heater Atkinson- Psychological counselor at RMIT in Hanoi)

The rate of illiteracy among disabled people in Vietnam is four times higher than the national average and only one disabled student out of one thousand succeeds in finishing his university studies. We had the opportunity to visit the two Rmit campuses of the Australian University of Business and Engineering in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Among several opportunities, they offer scholarships to disadvantaged students, including disabled ones.

The campus of Ho Chi Minh City is forty minutes taxi drive from the centre. Here we meet Carol Witney, who is English, but she has been living in Vietnam for seven years; her task is to coordinate all services for three disabled students (a blind girl and two students on wheelchair) and to make sure that there are no barriers in the campus. “Last year – she says – we received 50 applications for scholarships, among which 15 from students on wheelchair. These figures are rather low, but we have been working on this project for a couple of years, it’s only the beginning, it takes time”. A lot needs to be changed, not only among institutions, but also the mentality of the same disabled people. Heater Atkinson, who works as students’ psychological counselor at Hanoi campus, tells us that most of the time they are not aware about students' disabilities. It happens that some may fail a test just because they have a hearing or sight impairment and professors are the ones who find it out because the students do not dare to tell it out of fear of discrimination.

Score a goal and keep moving forward

“Many people asked me why I hired disabled people, considering that running a business implies making a profit . But our employees work wonderfully: we go on thanks to our work and not thanks to charities”
(Le Nguyen Binh – Founder of Reaching Out)

The workshop of Reaching Out is the first place we visit in Hoi An, a fairly known tourist town on the central coast of Vietnam: Carol Witney of Rmit has told us about its founder, Mr. Nguyen Binh. Reaching Out is a fair-trade company and in order to enter the workshop, which is located in one of the main and more crowded streets of the centre, people have to walk through the shop, where craftsmanship products are displayed for sale (from embroidered fabrics to jewels and ceramics). The strategy is very simple: tourists have to be attracted by the items and not by the people who make them, they buy since they like the object and not because they accomplish some good deed. There is no logo that points out who are the craftsmen: it’s not a coincidence as most the 60 people working in this workshop, open to the public, are disabled. Binh is not in, but he calls us and invites us to his house: he lives with his wife and two children in a village at the seaside, a few kilometers far from Hoi An. Binh is an interesting and calm person, able to smile and listen to people attentively: “From my point of view – he says- integration means to work and be able to be independent”. Binh has started his career as a programmer and from the very beginning he has realized that informatics offers a very good opportunity to disabled people: for this reason in 1996 he started up with his wife some English and IT classes for disabled people.

Binh tells us how he felt happy and satisfied when he was able to get his first salary. In 2000 he established Reaching Out trying to meet the needs of disabled people who had a lower education level. At the beginning craftsmen were ten, now they are sixty, among whom 50 disabled, and they make embroideries, pottery decorations and jewels. Each employee chooses a specialization according to his own skills and after a trainee period from three to six months, he can decide if he wants to stay or look for a job somewhere else. In 2013 they have opened also a Tearoom in the centre of Hoi An, where right at the entrance visitors can read “Enjoy the silence”: all waiters are deaf and dumb.

Beyond the war

“The past is the past: I’d rather think of the future and help disabled people make it”
(Nguyen Thang Ninh – Association of the Agent Orange Victims)

Two thirds of the population were born after Saigon capitulation and the reunification of the country in 1975: for them the war belongs to the past. Nevertheless,Vietnam is still paying its consequences: the so called orange agent, a chemical defoliating stuff, used by the US army during the war, has caused different mutations of DNA, the same mutations that nowadays are among the major cause for the birth of disabled children. The Red Cross in Vietnam estimates that the victims of chemical agents are about one million people, among whom 150,000 children. In 2004 the Association of the Orange Agent Victims has sued several US companies (among them Monsanto and Dow Chemical) for having invented, produced and at the end denied the damages caused by the defoliating agent. In 2005 the claim was rejected on the basis that at that time the orange agent wasn’t considered a poison and its use as herbicide was not prohibited

At the Museum of War Remnants in Ho Chi Minh City there is a whole section dedicated to the effects of chemical agents upon population and environment. At the ground floor there is a souvenir shop, where items are produced by disabled people working for one of the victims associations. Nuguyen Thang Ninh was born in 1984 and is disabled because of this type of contamination. For him too, however, the war belongs to the past and when we ask him his opinion about the effects of the war upon population he answers “The past is the past. I could study, get my university degree and now my dream is to encourage disabled people to trust themselves and never to be hopeless .

Job rather than charity

“To tell the truth I never felt my disability so much as when I started to seek work: anyhow if disabled people don’t work, it’s worse for everybody”
( Ngoc Nhung — Vice-president of the Association for Disabled in Can Tho)

The Mekong Delta, where one of the longest river in Indochina flows into the southern Chinese sea, is the most southern point of Vietnam. It is estimated that 1.4 million disabled people live in this rural part of the country, dotted with numerous small villages and where people move from one place to another only by boats. We stop in Can Tho for one night: the city with its one million inhabitants is far away from being a rural place. It’s one of the largest towns in the region but there aren’t many worth visiting places: tourists usually stop here to visit the floating markets in the suburbs. In the center there is a indoor market, where we meet Ngoc Nhung.

Ngoc Nhung moved to Can Tho to study 15 years ago. Today she is vice-president of the local association of People with Disabilities

Nhung is 35 years old, she was born in this area in Soc Trang but when she was 14 her mother sent her to Can Tho in order to attend high school. She studied abroad, one year in Thailand and one in the States. She has asked to meet us in one of the shops that are run by the association she works for. All products are hand-made by disabled people who work at their homes. Finding a job for these people is really challenging due to the enormous difficulties they have to move around by boats. Even going to school is a problem in this region. “No accessibility, poor education level and poverty”: Nhung underlines these as the main problems and makes us aware of the fact that solutions don’t seem easy: disabled people are often “hidden” in the houses or they are sent to Ho Chi Minh City, where they can survive only begging or selling lottery tickets (which is more or less the same as begging )

Nhung’s story is quite different, because her family is pretty wealthy and her mother always encouraged her to go on with her studies. In 2001 she happened to know the Association of disabled people in Can Tho, which at that time only had twenty members. Nhung was very skeptical about the possibility of any success: “What can twenty disabled people do together? - she thought at the time– maybe they spend some time together, they talk, at least they are not alone. I remember that on my way back home, I was talking with my mother and I told her that they wouldn’t be able to work and do anything good”. Today Nhung is vice –president of the association with its 250 members. Most of all the association is the only one, that has been officially recognized by the Government. Before we leave she wants to underline a main concept: “Things may change, but the first change must be in the government’s attitude: it’s not a matter of doing charity for the disabled but of helping them find their place in the society”.

Help us to live without asking for help

“Sometimes we are treated as special people: we couldn’t even drive and this way we become help-dependent”
(Do Thi Huyen – Disabled People Association in Hanoi )

DP Hanoi is located in a gray concrete building, property of the Government, which subsidizes the rent and partly supports the association. It is a non-government association but it collaborates with local authorities, it gathers 45 local associations and more than 9,000 members.

Do Thi Huyen is in the board of a local association, “Bac Tuliem”, and he has been working for a few years for DP Hanoi. “We are mostly treated as if we were in a certain way different, special people – she says –. It’s very difficult to talk about integration”. Huyen explains us that certain things are really a paradox: buses are free for the disabled but they are not accessible. So people who can walk on their crutches, prefer to use a three- wheel scooter, but it is illegal because disabled people cannot have a driving license, independently from their level of disability. “Once – she recalls – I had been stopped by a policeman who told me that I wasn’t allowed to drive and for this reason my scooter would have been confiscated. I asked him if I could really be in the position of using other means of transport and so he didn’t say anything else and let me go”.

Nothing is impossible ( for the disabled )

“Many programmers in Vietnam are afraid of trying and failing: this is a disability even worse than being on a wheelchair”
(Colin Blackwell – Chief Executive of Enable Code)

Disabled people hardly believe they can manage. Sometimes it’s the opposite: we experience this at Enable Code in Ho Chi Minh City. Enable Code is not an association, or a fair trade business: it is a programmers’ company, where four people work and they all are disabled.

Colin Blackwell, Enable Code CEO, shows Federico a handicraft made by a group of disabled

The Chief Executive is Colin Blackwell: we ask him how he began this experience and he replies it was by chance at all: “I was looking for a website designer and I received a very good curriculum, so I gave this person the job, which was done perfectly well and in time”. Blackwell was curious and he found out that the project had been performed by four programmers, who were about to finish their studies: “I appreciated their work and I suggested them to open a start-up, but they argued that they had no financial possibility to do such a thing. So I decided to personally take the risk thus establishing the Enable Code”.

When we visit the company, there are three of the four programmers: Luan Nguyen, Hoai Pham e Thien Chu. They have been working together for one and half year and they are getting ready for an appointment with a customer. “My company is not a charity organization, the real reason why I hired them is that they are clever”, says Colin. What makes them different? “They have a better attitude, and they are willing to take risks trying to do things that has never been done before. I wish I could inspire somebody else to do the same and I wouldn’t be offended at all if somebody would copy my own experience”.