No country for disabled men

By Dang Hanh, Thanh Nien News

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Volunteers practice to support a wheelchair user at a training course in Ho Chi Minh City last November. File photo. Volunteers practice to support a wheelchair user at a training course in Ho Chi Minh City last November. File photo.


On a recent Tuesday morning, while I was impatiently waiting for the green light on the busy Le Van Sy Street in Ho Chi Minh City, I witnessed a shocking scene: a legless man dragged himself towards a bus that had stopped closer to the middle of the road rather than the designated stop, grabbed its steps and tried to swing himself up.
The man, probably in his late forties, finally managed to get into the bus just before the light turned green and the bus sped away.
The conductor had stood on the street by the door and done nothing to help the man. Instead, he watched the whole scene as if it was from a TV reality show that required participants to do dares.
He was obviously stone-hearted, but he is not the only one to be blamed. He and his colleagues are not trained to help disabled people in such situations. Since last October city authorities have issued hundreds of free bus passes to disabled people, meaning one fare less for that conductor.
It is a praiseworthy policy but it will be even better if authorities take a closer look at either the bus steps, which are always too steep and high, or the conductors, who are usually too unfriendly to give a hand to someone needing help.
According to the city public transport management company, only 11 out of 2,783 buses plying the city have an automatic lift for wheelchairs.
This is for the around 636,400 disabled people living in the city, meaning there is little chance a wheelchair user will see such a bus and most have to practice acrobatics to get into one.
On April 2 two employees of low-cost carrier Vietjet Air in Da Nang city refused to allow wheelchair user Nguyen Thi Van to board a flight because she had not booked "special services." 
Van told them that she did not have any problem with her earlier flight from Hanoi, and that nobody had told her to book in advance.
The duo then decided to refund the ticket after claiming that their colleagues in Hanoi had broken the rules but they would not.
Van said she had to wait for six hours to catch a Vietnam Airlines flight back to Hanoi.
A friend of Van, who had accompanied her on the trip, filmed the conversation between Van and the two officials and posted it on Youtube.
A day later the media entered the fray, and aviation authorities slapped fines of VND 5 million (around US$250) on each of the two employees.
But what happened after that was ironical: the two employees were supported by the public while Van was criticized for “her negligence, failure to follow the rules, causing chaos and inconveniencing others.”
Some social media users even said that the way Van and her friend had filmed and posted the video on the Internet showed that the disabled “are not as meek or helpless as they seem.”
From that, one can conclude that disabled people should never be so strong as to publicly raise their voice against discrimination against them, only strong enough to swing themselves up into unfriendly buses or wait for six hours to fly.
When the public still has such preconceptions, it is not surprising that only 11 out of thousands of buses in the city have a wheelchair lift.
We do not know if there have been any studies to ensure that these rare buses operate on routes on which many disabled people travel, such as to a rehabilitation or disability support center.
An aviation official told the media last month that there was only one wheelchair lift at every airport.
There are rarely wheelchair ramps in public buildings, hospitals, offices around the country. Neither are there toilets for disabled people in such public areas.
When we were in university, a common voluntary activity was attending training courses in how to support disabled people we meet in public every day.
One of the most common situations for which we practiced was helping a wheelchair user climb up or down stairs, since one of our classmates was a wheelchair user who had to climb several floors to his classes.
This brought us closer to each other during our four and a half years at school, but some questions came to me again and again. Why did they have classes in high floors for disabled people? And why were there no elevator in such a massive building where 1,000 students studied?
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper ran a big piece in December praising city authorities for giving priority for seniors and disabled people in buying train tickets. But to enjoy this priority, they had to reach the ticket booth on the second floor of the railway station and wait for “just an hour” to get their tickets.
A photo showed a man carrying his disabled uncle on his back, both beaming after successfully buying a ticket.
They were smiling not because driving to the place early in the morning and climbing up and down the stairs piggyback are easy tasks.
It was because they both knew things could have been even worse.

Tran Thanh Son, a disabled man, is carried by his downstairs by his nephew after buying a ticket for Son at the Ho Chi Minh City railway station last December. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre.


Uncle and nephew prepare to ride back home.


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