How Accessible is Saigon for People With Disabilities?
Imagine you were blind and living in Saigon. Imagine crossing the streets of this frenetic city. Imagine its thick stream of vehicles flashing around you while you don’t even know that rickety city bus with its 20-year-old brakes is coming right at you. Imagine dodging the impromptu parkings, mobile food stalls, unequal paving stones and unsecured construction sites on the sidewalks without actually seeing them. You’d rather stay at home? Welcome to the world of the more than 2,000 visually impaired of Saigon!
I’m out with Ms. Loan, Acting Director of the Centre for Disability Research and Capacity Development (DRD), her colleagues Mrs. Hieu, who’s in a wheelchair, and Mr. Vu, the DRD’s Accessibility Technician, as well as Mr. Nha, who’s working for the Ho Chi Minh City Blind Association and visually impaired himself. And it is just now that I realise how hard it is for people with disabilities to live in Saigon.
The story they have to tell is both sad and full of hope. If accessible means that people with disabilities (PWDs) can move freely, Saigon is anything but that. And still, Ms. Loan insists,
“I’d say, Saigon is partly accessible.”
But she also sees the problems: “There are many difficulties for PWDs here. The biggest one is the accessibility of public areas. Another one is public transportation.” While she’s saying that, we’re in the gardens of the Independence Palace in the heart of Saigon.
Vietnamese with disabilities cannot access Saigon’s most important historical site. Case in point: restrooms. The ones on the ground floor are literally inaccessible as the doors are not broad enough for a wheelchair to go through. Taking the elevator (thankfully, there is one) to the second floor, we find two other restrooms with large enough door cases—but in one of them the cabins are so small Mrs. Hieu cannot close the door, and in the second and bigger one there’s a step right in front of the toilet.
Would you go to a place where you can’t go to the restroom? Which leads us to the question how to define disabilities.
“In Vietnam,” Ms. Loan explains, “we focus very much on the impairment itself. But internationally, the definition covers not only the disability but also the social barriers that come with it.” Social barriers as in: not going to places because you’re afraid you might find them (or the restrooms) inaccessible when you arrive.
Open Ears in Transportation
This is why the work of the DRD, founded by PWDs and officially subordinate to the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA), is so important. Not only do they provide information on which locations are accessible, they also approach venues and institutions to encourage them to raise disabled-friendliness.
“The transportation department is one of those institutions that we used to send letters to asking them to improve accessibility three years ago,” Ms. Loan says. “And they listened to us. Now, the main bus station has been upgraded with ramps, for example.”
And there’s more under progress: an audio system for the blind, screens for people with hearing impairment and wheelchair lifts. The ambitious goal is to make buses fully accessible by 2020.
Until then, the DRD runs its own transportation service with disabled-friendly three-wheel motorbikes. It used to be offered free of charge, but the sponsor pulled out last December. Now it costs VND4,000 per kilometre. Still too much for many PWDs. Because here’s another problem: PWDs often completely depend on their families.
Barriers of Independence
Ms. Loan outlines three cases:
“The first is: the child is treated equally, they go to school, to work. This is very important for PWDs. Other families are overprotective. They do take care of their child, but he or she completely depends on the family. The kid can’t even go outside by themselves. The third case is that the family ignores a child that has a disability.”
And even if a PWD gets the family’s support, the concrete barriers are still out there. Ms. Loan mentions a common question for people in wheelchairs who are searching a job: “How can I access the workplace?” Most offices are not disabled-friendly. And in 2011, a new law on disabilities waived the fixed percentage (2.3 percent) of PWDs companies had to employ before. Vietnam put history into reverse.
Even local people’s committees argue at times that PWDs don’t have to go to public institutions themselves to do paperwork—they could just ask their family members to help. This is how barriers are raised.
In their free time, PWDs are often faced with the same problems. Bar or restaurant owners time and again reject the DRD’s requests, saying: “PWDs don’t come here, why would we make this place accessible?” What a poor argument is that? You could just as well say there’s a need to ensure accessibility in order to allow PWDs to come.
Don’t Forget to Be Aware
It’s all about awareness, that other big word in the world of the disabled, and that is something one has to learn. The DRD has put on several programmes to help teach awareness, at universities or for business leaders.
While I’m out with Mr. Nha, several people on the street recognise that he’s visually impaired and offer their help. He experiences all kinds of reactions every day, he tells me.
“Many people are helpful and friendly, even support me to cross the street. Some others are not nice. When I bump into them by mistake or touch them, they curse at me.”
A New Hope
Engineering marvels like talking smartphones (his speaks Vietnamese and even gets the accents right!) or voice recognition software on his computer allow him to live an independent life. He praises initiatives like Noir restaurant where guests dine in the dark, served by blind waiters, because they focus on the abilities, and not only on the disabilities of PWDs. They help to give people an understanding how it is to be blind for an hour or two, and how, sometimes, it can be enriching not to see.
In downtown Saigon, many sidewalks have been upgraded with tactile paving (textured pavement to help blind people orientate), and the Nguyen Hue walking street even got a set of talking traffic lights. If this was the case across the city, Mr. Nha says, he might actually be able to move independently.
For now, especially crossing the street is an impossible mission for him without assistance: “If it’s a busy street, you cannot find your way through; and if it’s a quiet street, people risk to run you over at high speed.” Either way, a helping hand is more than welcome.
“Saigon is definitely the disabled-friendliest city in Vietnam. People are open-minded, have a good attitude.”
Ms. Loan’s conclusion might be surprising at first glance. She has lived and studied in Washington, D.C., a city that she calls “fully accessible”. But one has to take into account what has already been improved in Saigon.
And when we talk about sidewalk-clearing campaigns or that utility and futility of upgrading Saigon’s bus fleet, perhaps we should give a thought to those more than 13 million disabled people living in Vietnam.
For more information on the work of the DRD, visit drdvietnam.org.
Banner image source: Arik