Doing Good, While Doing Well 

by Christopher Runckel,

President of Runckel & Associates (www.Business-in-Asia.com)

Many of the business groups, MBA and other University programs I work with want to be more engaged in Vietnam.  They see the energy of the people, the strong work ethic, the national cultural and family orientation and the rise in development, and they want to get involved and be a part of this vibrant society.  They also see, however, that Vietnam remains firmly a developing country and although millions have been lifted out of poverty by the business growth and investment of the last 10 years that much of this development remains centered around the major cities.  In rural areas and in the less prosperous areas of major cities like Ho Chi Minh City much remains to be done to give all sectors access to education and the skills to ensure their own prosperity. 


One of the groups that has yet to fully benefit in this changing order are “people with disabilities,” so-called PWDs in Vietnam.  By way of background, it is estimated by the WHO that 10% of the world’s population is disabled. Vietnam’s General Statistics Office in a 2008 estimate found that over 15% of Vietnam’s population is disabled.  Using the first definition, Vietnam’s disabled population would be around 8 million people of which 63% are of working age.  Using the second, yields a figure of 12 million. 

A question you might be asking at this point is why would Vietnam’s PWD population be greater than the worldwide average.  Without a doubt access to prompt medical care and health prevention have lessened the numbers of disabled in the developed world, while in Vietnam, medical care is less pervasive and often not available to the poor and those in rural areas.  Young people with operable medical issues often don’t get timely medical care and as a consequence bear their infirmity throughout their life.  Transportation accidents, particularly those due to the  use of motorcycles as the major form of transportation, and accidents with farm equipment take a tremendous toll throughout Vietnam and poor or no health care often means that individuals suffer major impairment because of this.  PWDs in Vietnam predominantly live in rural areas and attend school at rates far below those of the non-disabled population.  Few PWDs have stable jobs and regular incomes. Environmental, economic and social barriers prevent most from fully participating in society.

Pictures above and left: people with disabilities in public places.

Many Australians, Americans, Canadians and Europeans are aware of the various means that all of these countries have adopted to try to help those with disabilities more easily engage with work and other activities.   Although the Vietnamese Ministry of Construction unveiled a new set of codes and standards in May 2002 and Vietnam has passed several laws and adopted international conventions protecting the rights of the disabled, the reality is that Vietnam is replete with physical environments that are difficult for PWDs to navigate. Even in urban areas, most buildings are inaccessible to wheelchairs.  Even most public buildings including schools, hospitals, government buildings and workplaces do not contain basic conveniences to assist those in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments.  Multi-story buildings with elevators commonly do have stairs between the front door and the elevator.  Oftentimes there is no wheelchair ramp nor do doors have enhanced opening controls.

Transportation options for PWDs are also difficult. There is little public transportation infrastructure—even new city buses are not accessible—requiring PWDs to be dependent on family members or others for rides to and from work or school. Sidewalks are rare and almost inevitably cluttered with people, motorbikes and food stands, or with broken paving that is difficult for even fit young people to utilize. One recent World Bank project to renovate streets in Hanoi included curb cuts, but this has not yet covered a wide area of the city and no plans are in place to upgrade existing infrastructure.

Pictures left: There is little infrastructure to facilitate PWDs in Vietnam.
Pearl S. Buck International and other NGOs are in the process of developing a unified Vietnamese sign language, with the input and participation of signers throughout the country after the model of development used in Thailand but much still remains to be accomplished in this effort.
While the National Blind Association has made significant advances in teaching Braille throughout the country, the use of Braille signage is rare, there are no guides on city streets and other accessibility aids are still almost unheard of.
After years of war, many PWDs still do not have orthotic or prosthetic devices. According to one recent report, it is estimated that only 15 percent of total demand for orthodic equipment has been met.

Social Poverty continues to retard the full participation of PWDs in Society
Although the rising economy is helping to bring increased prosperity to many in Vietnam, the most significant obstacle to full social participation in Vietnam is poverty and the overall low level of economic development. While PWDs in developed nations can focus on advancing their rights on a more sophisticated level, most PWDs in Vietnam are simply struggling to survive—this is one reason why so many self-help groups focus first on employment issues for their own members.
There is no broad-based government insurance plan that covers the added medical, transportation or other costs associated with having a disability, and since many PWDs do not work, their family situations can be quite difficult. When asked why they do not seek medical treatment or did not attend school, most children state that this is due to poverty than any other reason.  Economic engagement should therefore be seen as a significant barrier to full social participation.
In Vietnam, policies and programs that aim to “protect and care for” PWDs, in the form of charitable actions, outnumber those aimed at full rights and participation. There is a saying that is often cited to evince this: “unbroken leaves protect torn leaves.” Many people still consider charitable acts to be the most that can be done for PWDs. Also, in an environment where many people are unemployed and underemployed, authorities, employers, families and others do not often consider the finding of employment for PWDs to be a priority.
Accommodation needs of PWDs are sometimes seen as onerous obstacles to employment. Most people with disabilities live at home with their families. One recent report, cited numerous examples of officials and others stating the realities of prejudice in Vietnam: parents of other children in integrated/inclusive classes were not receptive to students with disabilities, fearing that their own children may somehow be affected by less attention from the teacher or even that their children would adopt odd behavior learned from of a disabled student. The fact that children with disabilities are often in poor families, either as a cause or effect, adds to their difficulties.
Attitudes of the society at large were said to be onerous by several others—society does not expect PWDs in Vietnam to be able to do the same work as others, or discourages them by giving them “strange looks” or treating them “with sympathy and kindness.”
There is considerable awareness of the need to create a friendlier environment for PWDs and several programs are aiming at creating a positive image of PWDs. The state-run newspapers and television often relate stories of success of PWDs throughout Vietnam. In these programs, however, the disabling factors of the environment are still neglected.
Organizations for people with disabilities
The National Coordinating Council for Disability (NCCD)

Picture above: Chris Runckel with Madame Oanh, the late Director of SDRC
 (Social Development and Research Center) and the founder of modern social work in Vietnam

The National Coordinating Council for Disability was established in March 2001, consisting of representatives of all ministries and being under the leadership of the MOLISA. This council is mandated to monitor the implementation of laws and regulations and to coordinate governmental programs and activities in the disability field. However, the NCCD has not developed its mission and there currently is confusion about what NCCD members should do “for” NCCD in their own departments or how they should be representing their own department at the NCCD council. All work is the responsibility of the NCCD office whose director is a retired high-ranking MOLISA official and whose staff has little capacity to implement its work. There are few representatives from disability organizations in the NCCD and most PWDs are either unaware, or unsure of its existence and the part it is supposed to play.

  • Association of Supporting Disabled Children and Orphans, 1993
  • Vietnam Association of Supporting Disabled Children, 1994
  • Vietnam Society for Protection and Support of the Disabled, 1998

These organizations formed by retired officials is generally of the charity model that does not advocate for the rights-based quality of life for PWDs.

Disabled Persons’ Organizations and the disability movement in Vietnam
Vietnam does not yet have a national organization, the representative of all PWDs that acts as an advocacy organization in the country. There are, however, a growing number of small, self-help organizations in various cities and towns throughout the country, primarily, though not exclusively, in urban areas. These self-help groups tend to have, at most, a few dozen members, and are not necessarily formal organizations with full-time staff, offices and programs, regular meetings or specific responsibilities. Most arose from groups of friends and they often concern themselves first with employment opportunities—the most direct and immediate way in which to improve the lives of their members.

Funding for these groups is very scarce, and the organizational work is done entirely on a voluntary basis. The few activities that are carried out, like vocational training, are financed through charity or membership fees. Most of the groups know little about fundraising, and have limited contact to potential donor organizations. They also lack the structure to meet the demands of most donors: they have no accounting system, no membership registration, and no defined objectives.
The disability movement in Vietnam is quite weak and it is questionable whether "movement" is at all suitable wording.  Political awareness is generally quite low among PWDs. Not many have a deep understanding of their rights or seem to think of themselves as a potential political force, nor of the role that organizations of PWDs might play in the social development processes. Few well-educated PWDs know about western democracies, organizational freedom, and the situation of PWDs in other parts of the world. Therefore, few of these organizations are attempting to broaden their scope and attempts at advocacy.

Despite the current challenges, progress is occurring.  An example of this is Disability Resource and Development - DRD, Vietnam located in Ho Chi Minh City.  Website:  www.drdvietnam.com   This organization isheaded by Ms. Vo T. Hoang Yen, who has a Master’s Degree in Human Development from the U.S., and is steadily gaining a voice and a roleas an advocate for programs.  The author readily recommends this group as both professional and better organized than others, and a good partner for projects in this needed field of supporting PWD individuals in Vietnam.

What You Can Do?

The need for funds, volunteers who can help with fundraising, website revisions, microcredit, orthodics and other programs remains large and growing in Vietnam.  Many young people want to make a difference and can dedicate time to building a better world.  Additionally, many newly retired have skills and still seek stimulation and a challenge.  Others can’t make such a large contribution of time but can help remotely in fundraising and other efforts.  Please consider helping Vietnam’s disabled as the need there is great.  Your efforts and dollars, euros or pounds can have a tremendous effect on a person’s life and ability to earn a living, gain mobility, and increase their dignity.  We encourage you to work with a quality organization like DRD-Vietnam that can help to focus your efforts and increase the gains that your volunteer and other efforts can achieve.

Another program that we encourage is to focus on education.  This has the benefit of giving you a tax deduction for your donation which can be made to a U.S., British or other University to help sponsor an aspiring and dedicated disabled individual.  Our company is currently working on a yearly scholarship for Vietnam’s disabled in cooperation with DRD-Vietnam and U.S. Universities which we would welcome support on.  (Please e-mail us or DRD if you would like to participate in this effort.)  Additionally, both we and DRD have contacts in universities and colleges internationally that can make programs available for qualified disabled students based on your contribution.

There is a Chinese saying - “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”   Education is like this, so please consider it as a step up which not only makes an immediate difference but changes lives and ensures leadership and further progress for Vietnam’s disabled well into the future.  

About the Author:  

Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel currently is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (www.business-in-asia.com)

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

More about the author: http://www.business-in-asia.com/vietnam/american_embassy_vietnam.html


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