This article was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 17, 2010.
By Laura Waxmann
Le Van Lieu’s 4-foot, 5-inch frame lies on a sofa next to a glass display case that contains a red beaded Santa Claus, a bejeweled wallet and other hand-made artwork. His knees are bent inward, giving him a cross-legged appearance – a disability that he believes is the result of his father’s exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
In an adjacent kitchen, another young man named Dau Van Lam wipes down a dining table while cupping a feeble right hand with his other arm.
“My mother didn’t want me to leave my village,” said Lam, 20, who contracted polio when he was 3 years old. “But I felt that I could take some of the burden off of her by coming here.”
Lieu, 27, and Lam live at the YMCA Vocational Orientation Club for Disabled Youth, a small two-story building at the end of a muddy alley that offers free room and board, and job training sponsored by a German nongovernmental organization called Bread for the World. They represent a growing number of young Vietnamese disabled by disease, accidents or exposure to Agent Orange who have left their rural homes in search of jobs, education and acceptance in the nation’s booming urban centers. While some find work and independence, most are forced to cope with a society of which many see them as useless, bearers of bad luck and a financial drain.
“People look at us like aliens,” Lam said. “Or they ignore us because they feel that we can’t do anything.”
Rights for disabled
Lieu, Lam and activists for the disabled hope such daily humiliations will end after the passage of the nation’s first disabled rights law in June called the National Disability Act.
The new legislation, which is scheduled to be implemented next year, requires equal access to education, health care, public transportation, and cultural and sporting events, and mandates state-sponsored rehabilitation and vocational programs. The law also requires the government to build wheelchair ramps and install elevators where needed in schools and public buildings, and to issue tax breaks and low interest loans to businesses whose workforce consists of at least 30 percent disabled employees.
“Having a comprehensive law in place will help these individuals integrate into society,” said Tran Van Ca, president of the Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped, a nongovernmental organization in McLean, Va.
Most important, the legislation includes a standardized definition of disability – an important measure that advocates for the disabled have long asked of a government that can deny disability checks to whomever it deems unqualified. Under the new law, the disabled are now defined as “those who have impairment of one or more parts of their body” that “may cause difficulties in work, daily life and learning.”
A 2009 census showed that Vietnam has an estimated 12 million disabled residents, many of whom suffer daily discrimination.
“Most people, including those in public administration, tend to falsely perceive people with disabilities as inherently incapable of significant participation in the social and economic mainstream,” said a 2006 survey by the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS), a nongovernmental organization in Hanoi.
Moreover, the same survey noted that cultural superstitions prevail. Many people believe the disabled are paying for the sins of their ancestors and bring bad fortune.
It also pointed out that Agent Orange victims born with birth defects are isolated. The toxic herbicide was used by the United States during the Vietnam War to defoliate forest and rural lands and deprive Vietnamese guerrillas of cover. A U.S. National Cancer Institute study has established a direct link between dioxin, a highly toxic compound, and cancer.
Agent Orange victims
Lieu’s family has petitioned Hanoi to add him to the list of Agent Orange victims, making him eligible for a monthly stipend of $36. The foreign ministry estimates that some 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to the herbicide, with about 3 million suffering adverse health effects. Each year, the nation allocates $50 million to help victims, according to the Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, a nongovernmental organization in Hanoi.
And such funds are badly needed for many families.
Numerous parents complain that they can’t earn a living if forced to stay home and care for a disabled child, said Lieu, who is studying computer programming and isn’t counting on government handouts. “I am lucky. I can move and work like normal people,” he said.
Polio victim Tran Vuhoai Phuong, 25, however, is not as fortunate. Forced to use crutches, she says each day is a struggle to get around the city or enter buildings with steps and no elevators.
“It takes me a long time to get on and off the bus, and the bus doesn’t (always) wait,” said Phuong, who also lives at the YMCA. “On some days, drivers simply pass me by.”
Do Thanh Tuan, 22, who suffers from childhood polio and is confined to a wheelchair, recalls that he was the only disabled student at his high school in the Mekong Delta town of Can Tho.
“I felt ashamed because I couldn’t walk like normal people,” he said. “My friends had to carry me up the stairs.”
Meanwhile, Lieu hopes for a better future after finishing his university studies.
“I can just hope for stable job and income for myself,” he said, “so that I can help others.”
YMCA Vocational Orientation Club for Disabled Youth (Hop Tac Tre)
70-72 No. 8 Road
Hiep Binh Chanh ward
Thu Duc district
Ho Chi Minh City