33-year-old Tran Thi Khanh Hoa has lived the last 30 years of her life with a physical disability after a medical accident irreversibly impaired her legs. But despite her disability, Hoa leads an active and productive life. She even braves Hanoi traffic on a three-wheeled bike every day to get to her accounting job at Chula Fashion House in Tay Ho. Hoa’s story is just one of many that demonstrate the varying experiences of employees with disabilities in Vietnam.
It’s unclear how many people in Vietnam have a disability. According to the last census in 2009 it was 5.8 percent of the population. However, the World Health Organization re-evaluated that number in 2010 to about 15 percent.
Regardless of exact numbers, a substantial percentage of Vietnamese people are living with some form of disability. A combination of poor health care, lingering consequences of the war, and genetic chance are the main causes. According to the same census in 2009, of the people in Vietnam with disabilities, about 14 percent are unemployed, compared to the general unemployment rate in Vietnam, which is currently 2 percent.
As part of the effort to reverse this problem, multiple businesses in Hanoi employ people with disabilities. Donkey Bakery, Chula Fashion House, and Indigo are a few of the many businesses in Hanoi that operate under a majority-disabled staff.
Donkey Bakery is a lot more than its name suggests. In addition to being a bakery, it’s also a tailoring service and a catering company for schools around Hanoi. But most importantly, it focuses on helping the disabled achieve independence by giving them work — 80 percent of the staff are deaf, blind or physically impaired.
For the past seven years, 36-year-old Tran Quoc Hoan has worked in customer service at Donkey Bakery using the vocational skills he learned at the government-funded Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind. Hoan, who was born blind in Ha Tinh province, moved to Hanoi when he was nine years old to attend the blind school for primary and secondary education. There, he learnt to play the dan bau, an instrument he still plays and teaches to other blind students at the school today. At Donkey Bakery, he improved his English and was trained in the vocational skills needed for customer service jobs such as how to use phone and computer software made for blind people.
Hoan is generally optimistic and grateful for his job. “I feel like this is my second family,” he says. But he also points out how lucky he is compared to other people with disabilities — “Before social enterprises in Vietnam, people with disabilities didn’t have many opportunities to work. The government doesn’t help people with disabilities get a job. They only help a little bit every month by giving us VND500,000 and a free bus pass,” he says.
Hoan takes the bus every day to get to work. But while public transportation in Vietnam is subsidized for people with disabilities, it’s not easily accessible for them. Hoan says that after work, someone needs to accompany him to the bus stop and wait with him until the correct bus comes. “It’s very difficult to get around the city if you’re blind. Some can do it themselves, but most people need help. It’s very dangerous with the traffic in Vietnam,” he says.
In Vietnam, it’s common for blind people to have jobs in music, customer service, or computer-oriented positions like Hoan. But for deaf people, the job field is entirely different. A lot of deaf people in Vietnam work as tailors or cooks, like at Donkey Bakery. Another example is the clothing store Indigo where almost all of the sewers and dyers are deaf.
Before opening her shop, owner Duong Thi Thanh had never even met a deaf person. Today she employs mostly deaf workers and has learned Vietnamese sign language. Three years after she opened Indigo, the Hoa Sua School in Hanoi, which specializes in training disabled and disadvantaged youths, opened a sewing school. At that time, according to Thanh, it was very hard for people with disabilities to get a job. Recognizing this, she decided to employ two of the school’s deaf seamstresses. From there, the numbers grew as her employees invited more of their deaf friends to work at Indigo. Today, she trains all of her tailors and dyers at the shop.
40-year-old seamstress Ngo Ngoc Lan was Indigo’s first deaf employee when she started working there 17 years ago. Deafness runs in her family, but not because of natural causes. Her father is a war veteran, and her deafness, along with two other family members, is believed to be a consequence of Agent Orange.
Lan is a member of Chi Hoi Nguoi Diec, or HAD, which is one of Hanoi’s deaf clubs. She is grateful to have a community of deaf people to support her, saying: “Because of this club, I feel that society treats us very well.” Additionally, she says that working at Indigo has provided a community for her. It’s also where she met her husband, who is a deaf tailor as well.
Chula Fashion House is another clothing and design company in Hanoi that employs deaf tailors. About 75 percent of the staff has a disability, either physical or auditory. Co-founder Diego del Valle Cortizas says: “We decided to employ people with disabilities after we met a deaf woman, Duong, who knew how to embroider. Through her we learned there are many people in Hanoi, especially deaf people, who know how to sew. She introduced us to her friends, and through them we learnt sign language.”
Thirteen years later, Duong continues to work for them.
In Vietnam, the education and training for people with disabilities is quite good; it’s the next stage in the employment process that’s most difficult — getting hired. There’s a common misconception that hiring people with disabilities is a burden on employers, but Diego strongly refutes this idea.
“We made very few compromises,” he says. “Sometimes sign language is even faster than spoken language, especially because when we arrived here we didn’t speak Vietnamese. It was much easier to learn sign language.”
In regards to his employees with physical disabilities who mostly work on a computer or in the café, he says: “There is nothing stopping them from doing their job as well as anyone else.”
Chula also employs sewers from the Hoa Sua school, such as 28-year-old Le Huyen Trang, who is deaf because of complications at birth. She started working at Chula after graduating. Unlike some of her disabled contemporaries, she feels the government treats people like her fairly: “We are fortunate that the government gives us money each month and free transportation. If you have a good job, like the people here, you can make enough money to be independent.”
Because of the progress made in inclusive education and specialised training in recent years, Vietnam is moving in the right direction towards equal opportunities for people with disabilities. While there are still many improvements to be made. Yet both socially and politically, companies like Chula, Indigo, and Donkey Bakery are helping normalize the employment of disabled people in Vietnam.
PHOTOS BY JULIE VOLA