Popular emcee and comedian Thanh Bach (in black) and DRD's director Vo Thi Hoang Yen (R) in one of the Friday night shows at DRD, a space for disabled children and teenagers to get on stage and discover themselves.
On a small stage set in the midst of a garden café, a motley group plays the keyboard, guitar, and belts out soulful ballads.
It is Friday night at Doi Rat Dep (DRD - Life is beautiful), a club and coffee shop set back in a cul-de-sac. Every table in the modest café is taken, like every other Friday night.
It could be any café in the city, except that the performers on stage are blind, and the waiters taking orders are deaf, dumb, or both.
"Service can be sloppy at times," says one regular customer. "But I have never seen anybody getting upset over misplaced orders. Most miscommunication can be resolved using the universal sign language."
DRD, which also stands for Disability Resource and Development, helps members enhance basic education and life skills through workshops, trainings, seminars, job fairs, and group activities such as film screenings and cooking.
Since its establishment in 2005, the organization has become one of the most popular venues for people with disabilities and their friends and families. The weekly musical performances at the café, where more than half the staff is disabled, are a means to bridge a social gap and establish dialogue between the disabled and the rest of the community.
Woman on a mission
Vo Thi Hoang Yen had to fight both social and infrastructural barriers when she decided to found DRD.
Yen, born in 1966, was afflicted with polio at an early age. Despite a degree in economy, she faced severe discrimination when she started looking for a job. After teaching at the Open University for years, she won a Ford Foundation scholarship in 2001 and went to the States for further education in human development. She returned to Vietnam three years later to found an organization for people with disabilities.
"In Vietnam, those with disabilities are made to believe they need help at every point in their lives. This only decreases our dignity and sense of self-worth and makes us more of a social burden," said Yen. "I wanted to found an organization that changed this worldview, and encouraged the disabled to become more self-reliant. At first, even the disabled resisted the ideas of DRD; they felt it didn't really address their needs as the programs were very advanced. Our popularity grew as we began to offer counseling, vocational training, and job opportunities. Today, thousands of people with disabilities in southern Vietnam head to DRD for all sorts of help," she added.
Yen says the first step in helping the disabled is to treat them normally as people who happen to have a disability, but are not defined by it.
Music does it
Yen firmly believes music is the easiest way to touch hearts, which is why she started weekly musical performances at the café.
Since 2009, noted singer Thuy Tien, who suffers from Xi to ma (a severe skin necrosis), has organized and performed at the Friday night shows.
Tien, who has undergone more than ten surgeries, said DRD is like home for artists with disabilities.
"The Friday night shows at DRD are a great space for disabled children and teenagers to stand on stage and discover themselves. Popular emcees and comedians Thanh Bach and Xuan Huong also participate in shows at DRD without expecting a fee," said Tien.
"DRD is a not-for-profit organization, and most of our activities and services are free. However, we do need to break even so we can continue helping people with disabilities. Even with full audiences in every show, and aid from Ford Foundation (which will stop this year), we barely manage to pay rent and salaries," Yen said.
A young businessperson suggested that instead of asking for donations, DRD could market its musically talented members. "We are in the process of designing music shows to be performed at business events. A show would cost around VND20 million ($1,000). It's a good way to get off the charity wagon we won't ask for money, we will work and get paid," said Yen.
The 2000 American drama film, "Pay it forward" inspired Yen to start an annual scholarship for disabled students.
In the film, and according to the conditions of the scholarship, the recipient of a favor helps a third party rather than paying the favor back.
DRD's "Scholarship and mentoring program" offers VND1 million ($50) to the disabled, if they agree to tutor or otherwise help someone else suffering from disabilities.
"If any of the scholars do not adhere to the conditions, I readily terminate their aid. One should not think they deserve a scholarship because they're disabled. There might be a non-disabled person in greater need of the money. And it is also a great way to instill the idea of "˜giving' rather than just "˜receiving.'" said Yen.
In a few years, Yen would like to go back to lecturing at the Open University and develop new youth projects, but she is devoted to DRD now.
On June 10-11, Yen is organizing the first-ever national rendezvous for organizations working for people with disabilities.
Noted guitarist The Vinh, who lost his right arm in an accident at the age of 8, is scheduled to perform at DRD tonight, May 27, along with guest artists, singer Thuy Tien and the blind music composer, Ha Chuong. DRD is located at 91/6N Hoa Hung Street, District 10.