Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Bắc Giang province to meet with persons with mobility disabilities receiving wheelchairs donated to them through a particular humanitarian project.
Before going on this trip, I read and edited a report for the Vietnam Women’s Union on the experiences and self-identified needs of persons living with disabilities in Vietnam in the areas of education, employment, healthcare, and stigma/discrimination. I was able to learn a lot from this report about some of the unique and most difficult challenges faced by persons living with disabilities in Vietnam.
During my visit to Bắc Giang, I saw some of these challenges firsthand. I visited the house of an 80-year-old woman who had received a donated wheelchair. The walk to her house was down a typical narrow alleyway, full of bumps, potholes, and just generally uneven ground. The inside of her house was small, with little foreseeable room to maneuver a wheelchair.
Moving to a community center where six more people would receive wheelchairs, I noticed another challenge. In order to enter the building to receive the wheelchair, each person with a mobility disability had to be lifted in by a family member (sometimes several). Even after receiving the wheelchair, they had to be carried out of the building because there were no ramps that would make it accessible.
Everyone who received a wheelchair was thankful and conveyed their gratitude. They expressed that it would make their lives easier. Could this possibly be true? During the trip back to Hanoi I kept wondering how. How would they be able to use this wheelchair in a way that would truly give them independence or greater freedom to travel? Vietnam, charactertised by tall buildings with many flights of stairs (and seldom an elevator), chaotic streets, and narrow alleyways, is not exactly a picture of accessibility. If the places visited and routes taken daily by these people aren’t adapted to accommodate the use of a wheelchair, what benefit does it really have? But then again, how do you begin to accomplish this?
Nevertheless, I was grateful for the experience to travel outside of Hanoi and meet some remarkable people with great strength, wonderful stories, and welcoming smiles.
Included below are some excerpts from interviews conducted with persons living with a disability in the report I read that I found to be particularly moving:
“I do not like to go out because I feel inferior to my peers, and as such I have a difficult time making friends. For example, after school other students go out with friends, but when I finish school I go home and do not go out.“ (18-year-old woman from Dong Nai)
“To be honest, selling lottery sometimes makes us burst into tears. We must face so many difficulties every day, such as being deceived or cheated, and being unaware of traffic, ditches or holes.” (A person living and working with a visual impairment selling lottery tickets in Ho Chi Minh City)
“In the beginning, I was faced with many difficulties. The cafeteria is far from the working place. I would leave for lunch at the same time as the others, but when I arrived at the cafeteria, everybody had already finished their lunch. Sometimes I was left with nothing to eat.” (Female worker living and working with a mobility disability in Dong Nai)
“At school, for example, my learning capacity was so bad that learning no longer became my main objective. I went to school to socialize. With my teachers only feeling pity for me and not providing me with extra help, my grades stayed poor and had no chance of improving.” (53-year-old man living with a mobility impairment in Dong Nai)