Enabling the disabled

By Kim Nga, Thanh Nien News

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American filmmakers of "Lives Worth Living" see parallels and potentials of the US's disability rights movement in Vietnam

Filmmakers Eric Neudel and Alison Gilkey had a talk show with the members of Disability Research and Development (DRD) Center in Ho Chi Minh City in March 2013

The screening of “Lives Worth Living” at the Disability Research and Development (DRD) Center in Ho Chi Minh City last month attracted nearly 50 audiences, most of who were disabled.
The film, which tracks the development of consciousness among a small group of people with disabilities and their struggle for equal rights in the US, did not make a great impression on local viewers until they met Eric Neudel and Alison Gilkey, who spent nearly six years making the film.
Neudel said that although not many people found his project idea interesting when he first started, he stayed keen on it.
“The film begins in the post World War II era when the status of people with disabilities began to change rapidly. It is like a window into a world inhabited by people with an unwavering determination to live their lives like anyone else, and a passage into the past where millions of people lived without access to schools, apartment buildings, public transportation, etc. – a way of life today’s generation cannot imagine.”
The film ends with the dramatic battle for the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in America’s history.
Neudel told Vietweek that the film took time and patience to work with nearly 21 characters in the one-hour long documentary that began shooting in 2007.
“However, four of them died before the film was released in 2011… We had approached many characters and many of them refused to talk about their circumstances. But thanks to Alison, they were ‘defeated’ by her charming patience,” he said.
Neudel said, for him, making the film was something he wanted to do to combat the injustice and the pain caused by the discrimination towards the disabled.
Gilkey’s reason was closer to home.
“Alison has two children with disabilities from her first marriage. Any parent who has children with such challenges has felt the sting of discrimination and exclusion. This is a very painful set of feelings, and they certainly have had a big impact on Alison.”
“Having birthday parties that other children would refuse to attend, being separated from other children in schools, being looked down upon by school officials and other members of the community: all of these attitudes and actions really hurt people. They are wrong and unnecessary. Alison has fought for her children her whole parenting life and she still has to do it all of the time,” Neudel said.
The film also affected viewers in the United States.
“Lives Worth Living has had an enormous impact in the US. Part of this is because very few people even knew that this very important civil rights movement happened. And discovering that this movement brought about such an important change within the US was a surprise to many people – especially people with disabilities,” Neudel said.
“It has inspired many people to speak up for their rights and has improved the self-esteem of many people with disabilities. It has given many people hope for the future.”
Neudel said that meeting DRD’s members was such a nice spot of his trip.
“I was very impressed with DRD. They have a strong spirit – much like the people who fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
“They want to fight for the rights of people with disabilities in Vietnam and are willing to speak up for themselves. They also include every kind of disability in their thinking and plans. I think this inclusive approach is very important. That sense of unity will help the disability community in Vietnam achieve equal rights – something the leadership of Vietnam already wisely considers important.”
Vietnamese organization DRD’s leaders and members also shared their experiences about disability-related issues in Vietnam, where the disabilities act has been applied since 1998 and modified in 2010.
However, Luu Thi Anh Loan, DRD’s vice president, told Vietweek that the act had not been well applied practically.
“For example, the Ministry of Construction has promulgated regulations guaranteeing constructions specified for the disabled. Nonetheless, not many organizations observe them [regulations]. Suppose that they do, they just half-complete the constructions and they [constructions] are still not comfortable for us,” she said.
Neudel agreed that Vietnam still has many disability related issues, and “some of these disabilities are the result of the American War.”
“In 2013 Alison and I were chosen as film envoys for the American Film Showcase. Part of that job involves engaging in cultural exchange via the US embassies and consulates in the countries we visit. Disability issues are universal and provide all of us with the common ground to meet and try to make the world a better place.”
Before “Lives Worth Living,” Neudel was an award-winning filmmaker with his “Vietnam – A Television History” airing in 1983 after taking six years to assemble. It was regarded as a landmark thirteen-part documentary series.
Neudel said he did the series to take a closer look at the war and partly heal both nations’ wounds.
“When I was working on Vietnam – A Television History, I hoped that someday I could come to Vietnam to see effects of the war for myself,” he said.
“What I found surprised me: in many ways the war casts a longer shadow in the United States than it does in Vietnam. I think this is because the war created deeper and longer lasting divisions between people of the US. Vietnam seems to be a looking forward without the burden the US carries.”
Screening the film is not Neudel’s only mission in Vietnam. Meeting young filmmakers is part of the trip and his team is in the beginning stages of requesting funds for a project here related to the war.
“The issues in Vietnam that stood out for me on this visit related to democratic principles – like free speech and censorship – as well as the environment. For society to truly prosper intellectually free speech is an essential civil right.”
“And more focus on this issue I think will help Vietnam move forward. I also think that Vietnam faces challenges with the debris that washes up on its shores.”
“My suggestion is that more focus on the environment would be an excellent idea: more public service campaigns against littering, a volunteer service program for students and other young people whose job it would be to clean up the places around them. This would generate a heightened consciousness about the environment.”

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