Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New independent living center in Vietnam gives disabled people more freedom

From Tuoi Tre in Vietnam. In the picture, Tran Duc Cong (L) and Hoang Cong (R) take Van Duc Hoa and Vu Tuan Tu to the market.

After three years confined to her bed due to a spinal injury, Pham Diem Huong says she’s finally beginning to enjoy the world, thanks to her new assistant.

“I’ve come back to life,” says Huong, explaining that she owes it all to her assistant Oanh, a recent Hanoi-based Banking Academy of Vietnam graduate who passed up a higher salary in the financial sector to work as an assistant to the disabled.

Huong, a former office clerk who suffered a traffic accident three years ago, says Oanh has helped her gain back the desire to live.

“I’ve been able to buy a comic book as a birthday gift for my niece, instead of just living off others as before,” says Huong. “Everything has changed since Oanh came around.”

A few dozen assistants like Oanh work for the Hanoi Independent Living Center, non-profit group supporting some 30 disabled people in the capital. Opened in late February, the organization aims to help those it supports make their own choices and live independently with greater access to social services.

Oanh says she loves the job because it offers her the chance to give back to the community, a value instilled in her at a young age. Assistants like Oanh visit those in need at their homes every day.

“The salary [VND2.5 million (US$140.52)] is fine and I’m just happy to have the chance to do something humane and meaningful,” says Oanh. “Helping Huong live her life her own way has not only become my job, but also my duty and true desire.”

Built on a model of independent living that originated in the US in the 1970s, the center operates in line with several fundamental principles to ensure the integrity of care, according to its website.

At least 51 percent of the group’s leaders must be disabled, with several key positions filled by the critically disabled. The functions of the center include not only providing personal assistants to the disabled for everyday help, but also the provision of training and information about national social welfare programs, and assistance in accessing these programs.

Each day, Oanh and Huong draw out a daily schedule of activities. Oanh helps Huong study English and Japanese and takes her to the supermarket before the two cook meals together for Huong’s parents.

Most importantly, Oanh says, Huong has been able to pass on several life lessons to her younger assistant, not the least of which is the ability to embroider.

Tran Duc Cong, a graduate from Hanoi Open University, and Van Duc Hoa, who suffers from cerebral palsy, do many of the same things together.

As a Living Center assistant, Cong helps Hoa clean the house, study foreign languages, and learn computer skills.

Cong also helps with personal hygiene and has taught Hoa how to use his new electronic wheelchair.

“The most important duty is to help him react to traffic and practice crossing the road,” says Cong, as busy Hanoi intersections can be intimidating.

Lam, another assistant at the center – a three-year project funded by the local Bright Future Group, Japan’s Nippon Foundation and Disabled People’s International Asia-Pacific Region – says most people with physical disabilities have to rely mainly on their families for the most basic of needs, including eating and hygiene.

“Other needs like communication, learning and social relationships are almost impossible for them to attain on their own,” he says. “We give them eight hours of support a day for free, and they make great use of every day to enjoy and discover the wider world with us.”

After having an assistant for just two days, Vu Hai Yen, who also has cerebral palsy, went to the market for the first time in her life with the help of her assistant. She wrote in her diary that she was at first a bit confused but also very interested.

“It was the first time I could choose things to eat for myself,” she wrote. “For me, it’s very significant to be in a wheelchair but still making the steps towards independent living with the help of an assistant, so I can integrate into the community confidently later.”

Cerebral palsy patient Vu Tuan Tu says he is now able to cook and bathe himself with just minimal help from his assistant Hoang Cong. Most importantly, he’s able to go out and meet with his friends much more frequently.

“I’m less worried than before about my mother taking care of me in her old age,” Tu says. “My confidence and independence have gone way up. With the support, I’m really gaining my own life.”