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The Ho Chi Minh City bus system's failure to upgrade its handicapped services has left many of its passengers in the lurch


A young woman helps a disabled passenger board a bus in Ho Chi Minh City

Tran Ngoc Huyen, 26, wishes she could go everywhere and do everything.

She'd like to skate, rock climb and push her body to the limit.

"I wish I could be able to get out and do such activities," she said. "There would be nothing greater than that."

But the young typist lost feeling in both of her legs at the age of two. Today, she walks on clutches and rides a three-wheel modified motorbike from home to work and back.

During her ten months in the city, she could recall just one trip she made to Tao Dan Park in District 1. She avoids trips to the markets, malls or sightseeing destinations.

Now, she's leaving town"”feeling defeated by her immobility and a city that has failed to accommodate her.

"Today is my last working day," she told Thanh Nien Weekly on Monday (July 4). "I decided to quit and go back to my homeland in Khanh Hoa because my mom is seriously ill and also because life in HCMC is harsh."

"I have never taken a bus around HCMC because they drive carelessly and the bus entryways are too high off the ground for me to safely board them," she said. "I'm terrified by the thought that I will have to get on one."

When asked about her thoughts about the city's public transport services for the handicapped, she told a reporter not to waste time thinking about the issue.

"Many newspapers have quoted officials who have promised, in nice voices, to improve their services," she said. "But nothing has been done."

Huyen remains skeptical that anything will change.

"The handicapped should adapt to the current transport services situation rather than relying on such promises," she said. "Just remain silent!"

Hidden handicapped

Many physically disabled HCMC residents said that they aren't able to utilize the city's frenetic bus system because the vehicles aren't designed to serve them.

"If you are a poor handicapped person, you have no choice but to go around in a wheelchair;" said Tuan, a 26 year-old paraplegic architecture student in HCMC. "We rarely have any opportunity to leave our houses."

A survey conducted by Thanh Nien found that almost all of the city's bus stops were not designed to meet the needs of the handicapped.

In many cases, bus stops are set atop high curbs, making it difficult for these passengers to board.

Only a handful of stops along District 1's Le Duan Street featured stops that are parallel to the street for easy handicapped boarding.

According to the HCMC Center for Public Transit Operations, only four bus routes in the city are utilized by buses equipped to accommodate wheelchairs.

The routes include Saigon Binh Tay Market, Mien Tay Bus Station National University, Cho Lon Bus Station HCMC University of Agriculture and Forestry and Cho Lon Bus Station Cu Chi.

Phung Dang Hai, director of the HCMC Union for Transport Cooperatives, said they haven't received support from the municipal authorities to equip buses for handicapped passengers.

Currently, both state-owned companies and private firms operate vehicles along the city's 100-plus bus routes.

"A bus outfitted for the handicapped costs an additional VND300 million to VND400 million," Hai said. "Bus owners don't want to buy them because they don't receive any support from the city authorities."

There are around 54,000 handicapped living in HCMC, according to governmental statistics. Nationwide, the figures are around 6.1 million or 7.8 percent of the populations.

Failure to launch

In 2006, the city administration instructed the Transport Department to improve bus services for the handicapped.

Little progress has been made since then.

In 2009, Saigon Bus launched a pilot project to introduce wheelchair lifts into the fleet. However, only 18 of its 700 buses feature the device.

A recent plan drafted by the HCMC Transport Department aims to retrofit between 5 and 10 percent of the total buses to ensure that they serve the handicapped.

According to the HCMC Center for Public Transport Operation, the city will invest VND6.8 billion (US$330,900) to modify 210 bus stops to make them easier for the handicapped to get onto buses.

In April, the city unveiled a VND2 trillion ($97.3 million) plan to replace 1,680 old buses with new ones. However, it didn't clarify how many of the new buses would be designed to accommodate disabled passengers.

Following the announcement of the plan, the Disability Research and Capacity Development Center a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping the disabled urged the city administration to purchase busses that feature lowered entryways.

The organization claimed that the buses would also provide better service to the elderly, pregnant women and children.

Pham Van Phung, a student at HCMC's Van Lang University, said his physical handicap often prevents him from freely traveling around the city.

He now faces more difficulties, he says, due to poor bus service. Phung lost his leg in a traffic accident six years ago and he moved to HCMC to study, nearly a year ago.

"A handicapped person has the same mobility needs as everyone else," he said. "Moreover, they often rely on public transport system more than others."

 BUS DRIVERS MISTREAT THE DISABLED

Thanh Nien has received a startling number of letters from disabled Vietnamese city-dwellers claiming that they have been abused and ignored by urban bus drivers.

Tran Quang Dung, chairman of Association for the Disabled in the northern province of Ha Nam, said he had been twice refused by bus drivers in Hanoi last December.

In the first instance, on December 12, Dung claimed, a driver's assistant on the No. 7 bus to Cau Giay District refused him to let him board, despite the fact that the bus was carrying just a few passengers.

In the second case, on the same day, the paraplegic says he asked a passer-by to help him onto a bus travelling from Hanoi to Nhon. Dung says the driver yelled at the Good Samaritan, ordering him to remove Dung and his wheelchair from the bus.

Many students from the Hy Vong (Hope) School for Disabled Children in Ho Chi Minh City have come forward with claims that city bus drivers have refused to honor their government-issued bus passes.

In a letter sent to the paper in 2008, Ngo Hoang Phuc, a deaf-mute eighth-grader, said one bus driver, knowing Phuc was unable to talk, threw away his bus pass.

"I didn't have any money with me so the bus driver asked me to leave the bus," the student wrote. "Did I deserve to be treated like that?"

His case was written about in papers throughout the country, he says. But the problem still persists.

According to Phuc, for the past four months, bus drivers simply ignore his attempts to present them with his bus pass.

Other children at the Hy Vong School complained of similar mistreatment.

Some claim that they have got shouted at, others complained that they had been prevented from exiting the bus at their desired stops.

During the same period, a number of disabled workers at the July 27 Company (a mechanical firm in HCMC named after the national day honoring veterans) have also submitted letters claiming they were mistreated by local bus drivers.

One of the workers, Lien, recalled an instance in which a driver shut the door on her and two other handicapped individuals after letting a number of other passengers onto the bus.

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