Thursday, July 14, 2011

Able In A Disabled Society- Ho Chi Minh’s Very Beautiful People


By Abeer Yusuf
Photographs by Audrey Samuel

For the second last session of the Saigon chapter, students took a short taxi ride to the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City to meet with an organization called DRD, short for Doi Rat Dep, which means ‘life is very beautiful’ in Vietnamese. The acronym in English also conveniently expands to Disability Resource and Development Centre, which was the discourse of discussion for the session. Upon entering the premises, students were given the chance to witness one of DRD’s activities in action - a group of children with disabilities doing their homework in what is billed as the clubhouse of the organization.

Learning a foreign language also took on a unique meaning when all those present were asked to introduce themselves in sign language (as not all at the Centre can communicate in English/Vietnamese), keeping the students occupied for some time in the endeavours of perfecting a new-found language, taught as courtesy of Eunice and her mother, Susan. The end results were not disappointing, each student having gained the ability to spell their own name in sign language, some even going the creative mile and using flower signs. 
Stepping into the world of sign language.
The meet was jointly hosted by Ms. Vo Thi Hoang Yen, director and founder of the organization and Ms. Nguyen Thuy Diem Huong, coordinator of the scholarship and mentoring programme. Ms. Vo, 45, explained the organization’s role and two main aims, calling it a disability-friendly place that was founded in 2005 to raise awareness of disabilities in Vietnam, as well as to ‘build capacity’- first for those with disabilities to empower themselves through employment and internship opportunities and second, for other organizations with similar agendas to collaborate, network and aid each other in terms of support and resources. While there is no account for the number of members or collaborating NGOs, people of all ages with all kinds of disabilities are part of the organization.

One of the points raised was how the term “disability” has etymologically changed over time, progressing from being a distinguishing obvious trait in individuals to a word that contemporarily signals a negative connotation. It is for this reason that Ms. Vo emphasized the need to address those with disabilities as People With Disabilities (PWDs) rather than the more commonly applied term ‘disabled people’- “they are people first, disabled later”, humanizing the context, adding that, “society tends to forget that we are all disabled in some ways, just that some disabilities are more prominent than others”.

Society in terms of Ho Chi Minh City was called out by Ms. Vo as a largely non-PWD friendly space, which she cited as the main reason why so many issues persist for those with disabilities. Obvious communication problems aside, PWDs are unable to integrate into society because of the general assumption that such people are ‘problematic’ and incapable of doing anything significant.

Some of the PWDs at the clubhouse taking time out from homework to pose for the cameras.
When asked about society’s perception of such people, Ms. Vo answered that a major part of the problem with the local community was the role faith played in how people perceive the PWDs. In the Buddhist faith, those with disabilities are seen as repenting or paying for past sins in previous lives, or afflicted as so because of sins other family members may have committed. Despite the emergence of PWDs as a result of the Vietnam War, Ms. Vo regretfully said that people still hold onto the belief that karma (what goes around comes around) is the main agent of the conditions of people with disabilities.

As these strongly-held beliefs penetrate the mindset of society, those with disabilities are shunned in the name of embarrassment and forced into corners, invisible to the people who have little or no awareness of such situations, ultimately creating a vicious cycle of the repressed being more repressed and the uneducated remaining unaware. Statistics state that almost 15.3 percent of the population are people living with disabilities, which makes knowledge of this all the more hard to digest.

Most disturbingly however, PWDs learn to believe that they are in fact incapable of doing anything on their own, instead relegated to the ethos that they must always rely on someone, and have no viable skills/abilities that can help anyone in any way, a misconception, according to Ms. Vo
Ms. Vo explaining the ropes of DRD.

Indeed, that is precisely why DRD has come about- to not only make society aware of an important capable segment of society, but also to help make the PWDs realize that they are in fact, despite everything society says about them, able. It is in these efforts that DRD aids the PWDs, by helping them develop social skills and independent living skills. Among social skills, PWDs come to the Centre every Friday and embark on cooking excursions, buying produce from local markets, interacting with local vendors and cooking food at the Centre, simultaneously learning how to integrate into society and how to live independently. Recognizing that all PWDs have different aptitudes, the clubhouse even hosts open mic sessions for the musically inclined, participation open to all members of the public. Among other interesting activities, PWDs also practice martial arts and the Centre is about to introduce a speed dating service to be hosted at the clubhouse. PWDs at the clubhouse are also encouraged to make handicrafts that are sold as souvenirs.

The Centre has also conceptualized a pilot programme that helps facilitate interaction between the PWDs and volunteer groups to help them learn social skills. DRD also helps co-ordinate efforts between potential headhunters open to accepting PWDs into their setup as part of their employment programme, having placed individuals at British Council Vietnam and HSBC. Internship opportunities are also coordinated by DRD.

Mentoring and scholarship programmes have also been set up to ensure that PWDs are able to exercise their rights to a proper education. Of all the PWDs in Vietnam, only 0.1 percent have been enrolled in universities, many also having to pull out due to lack of sufficient funds, an issue DRD helps the PWDs out with. To date, 30 PWDs have been financially supported by generous individuals. The organization also provides counseling services to young aged PWDs, recognizing that dealing with their unique life trajectories requires an understanding of how they are different from the other ‘normal’ members of society and how it is important to develop integration skills at a young age. DRD has also gone to the extent of taking into account parents of children with disabilities who need to be educated and enlightened on how to provide holistic care for their children. It is no surprise then that having seen the progress of the various programmes, the Atlantic Philantrophies group from the United States of America have granted a 1 billion USD award to DRD to aid the PWDs financially for the further undertakings.

It is no wonder that after five years since its inception, the organization is considered the best on dealing with disabilities in the south of Vietnam. But the work is far from complete. Ms. Vo recognizes that society’s traditional motto in contributing to the PWDs has historically been to keep a safe distance while providing financial aid and physical rehabilitation all in the name of charity, and feels that this needs to evolve into a social motto that acknowledges that “society needs to be changed to accommodate citizens with disabilities”.

For someone who personally is a PWD and faced employment discrimination despite holding two BAs, Ms. Vo understands what it is like not to have a voice, and not be represented. This is the main reason Doi Rat Dep was founded. Seeing as Ms. Vo has just won the President Call to Service Award from the President of the Unites States (for service to Vietnam), the voices may just have been heard far beyond where she would have imagined.


Abeer Yusuf is currently midway through her fourth year in Honours, researching on South Asian Third Culture Kids, and would one day like to be credited with making the term ‘desi’ more commonplace in Malaysia.

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