Monday, June 3, 2013

Fighting the stereotypes: disabilities report launch is a big hit in Viet Nam

On 30 May 2013, UNICEF launched its annual flagship report, State of the World’s Children, in Da Nang, Viet Nam. The subject was disability. Andy Brown was on the ground with UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake as he visited centres around Da Nang and met children with disabilities.

Children with disabilities pose for a photo after their drum game
© UNICEF EAPRO/2013/Andy Brown
I arrived in Viet Nam two days before the report launch. From the air, Da Nang is stunning. We came in to land at sunset, with a cloudless view across a wide river delta and out to sea. Trees and village houses cast long shadows across the waterways and mud-brown fields. Near the coast, a handful of limestone peaks (the Marble Mountains) rose out of an otherwise flat landscape. Here and there, a few cargo boats made their way downstream to the sea.

But Da Nang also has a dark side. During the Vietnam War, its airfield was used to store containers of ‘Agent Orange’, a chemical that was sprayed over the countryside to destroy crops and forests. Now, almost four decades later, Da Nang still has one of the highest rates of birth defects in the region. This is widely attributed to Agent Orange, which contaminates the water supply and food chain.

On the morning of the launch, I arrived with UNICEF colleagues and journalists at the first project site, the Centre Supporting the Development of Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities, located at Nguyen Dinh Chieu Special School in Da Nang. My job was to tweet the day’s events, including photos and quotes, to UNICEF’s 1.8 million Twitter followers. I had to multi-task and work fast.

We also had some bloggers with us, including Viet Tran, known online as ‘JVevermind’, a Vietnamese university student who has over 700,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. Viet Tran had driven down from Ha Noi with a group of other bloggers for the launch. He told me that they almost got stranded en-route when they ran critically low on petrol in a remote, mountainous area.

While we waited for Anthony Lake (known to staff as Tony) to arrive, I took Viet Tran to see a classroom where children with hearing disabilities played an educational game. They stood in a row with their backs to a boy with a drum. Each time he hit the drum, the other children had to jump one step forward. They couldn’t see the drum, so they had to listen for it. The children were energetic and not at all shy, clambering all over me and Viet Tran in order to see their own photos.

Dao Trung Hieu, 18, quizzes Tony Lake about UNICEF’s work
© UNICEF EAPRO/2013/Andy Brown
Around 9am, Tony Lake arrived with Peter Baxter, Director General of AUSAid, and several diplomats. One of the students, 7-year-old Nguyen Quy An Dung, read them a welcome message in Braille. Together we toured the centre, visiting a reading class for children with visual impairment, a physiotherapy room, and a vocational training class. Here, Tony stopped to chat with partially-sighted Dao Trung Hieu, 18, who asked him what UNICEF did. “Everything we do is to help children,” Tony replied. “I sit behind a desk in New York so that children here can do all the things you are doing today.”

Afterwards we left for the second project, the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange (DAVA) Centre in Hoa Vang. For most of the drive, I was busy uploading my photos and tweets from the first centre. When I finished, I realised that we were lost somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside, in a maze of narrow lanes, paddy fields and small villages. Our driver stopped to ask a villager for directions and eventually we arrived at the DAVA centre, just as children were about to perform a welcome dance for Tony and Peter.

Tony Lake dances ‘Gangnam Style’ with children with disabilities
  © UNICEF Vietnam/2013/Ehrin Macksey
Now I’ve seen this kind of thing before and usually the children perform a traditional song and dance ceremony, but this time to everyone’s surprise they had chosen the YouTube sensation ‘Gangnam Style’. Laughing, Tony and other delegates got up and joined the children doing Korean rapper Psy’s signature dance moves. It was one of several moments of spontaneity that showed Tony’s informal side and his natural way with children.

After the dance, Tony visited a non-formal education class and a vocational training room where children were learning to use sewing machines and making decorative flowers. He stopped for a while to chat to a teacher, Nguyen Ngoc Phuong, who had physical disabilities and stood around two foot tall. “I feel lucky that my brain is working fine, so I want to help children who are not so lucky,” Phuong said. He also told Tony how the centre helped to secure jobs with local companies for the children when they grow up.

Teacher Phuong talks with Tony and UNICEF Viet Nam’s Lotta Sylwander
© UNICEF EAPRO/2013/Andy Brown
We returned to our hotel at Da Nang’s China Beach. In the afternoon, we held the official report launch before an audience of government, embassies, journalists and young people.
Tony spoke first in Vietnamese, then more fully in English. “No group has had its rights compromised more consistently or more cruelly than children with disabilities,” he said, outlining a series of steps towards greater inclusion. “As a first step, [we] urge governments to keep their promises to guarantee the equal rights of all their children. Our report also calls for greater commitment to break down specific barriers to inclusion, which starts with equitable access to quality health services.”

The star of the show, however, was unquestionably 16-year-old Phuong Anh. Also known as ‘Crystal’, she is a Vietnamese young person with disabilities who rose to fame on the TV show ‘Viet Nam’s Got Talent’. I’d met her the night before and quickly realised that her small body held a big personality and sharp mind.

Crystal performs ‘Let’s Dance’ on stage with other children with disabilities
  © UNICEF EAPRO/2013/Andy Brown
Crystal spoke movingly about her life story. “Since I was a child I have fought against the stereotypes,” she said. “There were times when I believed the labels. But growing up surrounded by my family’s love helped me realise my true colours. When I’m on stage, the insecurities are gone. I feel like I could just burst out of my chair and give them all I’ve got.

“As a Friend of UNICEF, I want to make it my mission to speak for children with disabilities,” she continued. “They need to know that someone out there believes in them like I do. I want to change the way other people see us because it’s attitudes that either handicap us or set us free.”

At the end of the event, Crystal was joined on stage by some of the children with disabilities that we’d met earlier in the day. Together, they performed her signature song ‘Let’s Dance’. It was a sign of my age that I immediately thought of David Bowie, but this was a Hannah Montana song, more familiar to a younger audience.

“You were fantastic,” I told Crystal afterwards at the reception, as we looked through photos on Twitter and became friends on Facebook. The next morning, as I returned home to Bangkok, I posted my favourite personal photo: a slightly blurry camera-phone shot of me and Crystal celebrating the success of the launch. But this was not just UNICEF’s success. By raising the profile of the issues they face, it was also a success for children with disabilities in Viet Nam and around the world.

Find out more

•  Follow the conversion on Twitter @UNICEF or #thisability
•  Read and watch Crystal’s real life story
•  Watch JVevermind on YouTube
•  More about the State of the World’s Children report

The author
Andy Brown is Communications Consultant with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific

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