Making the “Impossible Possible” in Vietnam

Good networking often brings wonder and surprise, as I found out not long ago. I was fortunate enough to be introduced by a mutual friend to Duong Phuong Hanh, a hard of hearing project officer for the Deaf Club in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Hanh graduated from the University of Technology majoring in Chemistry and worked as a technician in several different laboratories for about four years. In 2003, Hahn realized that this job was not suitable for her: it would be dangerous for her to manage machines which required service repair, and the job involved answering many phone calls. When she left her technician job, a new chapter in her life began…

Karina: What made you change your mindset towards working with the deaf and hard of hearing?

Hanh: When I left my job as a technician, I thought a lot about my employment situation – and realized while I cannot change my hearing loss, I can change my career. I was lucky that I had learned English and had good skills in translating, so I applied for a translator position in an Overseas Education Company and worked as a translator.

One at a time, I tried to look for organizations for deaf or hard of hearing individuals, but with no results. However, I took part in the “World Flight for Hearing” project of a hard of hearing pilot Johan Hammarström (Author’s note: see my article about the World Flight for Hearing project here ). After working for WFH, I exactly knew that serving deaf or hard of hearing communities was my dream job! So it was no surprise that, in 2006, when the Disability Resource and Development Center was looking for a social worker to coordinate a group of people with hearing loss, I applied for the position. I began working there at the beginning of 2007, and am still with them today.

Today I am also the Permanent Vice President of the Ho Chi Minh City Deaf Club and a project officer. I love to work with people with hearing loss. I try my best to improve the Club so that young deaf leaders can support me in developing the deaf and hard of hearing community in Ho Chi Minh City in the future.

Karina: What are the biggest challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing communities in Vietnam now?

Hanh: Quite clearly, the biggest challenges are education and employment, and there are not many opportunities here, I am sorry to say that… According to the Vietnamese Government’s laws, 2% to 3% of each enterprise or company’s workforce must be comprised of employees with disabilities. If they do not, they must be punished. But the government has not officially carried out this law.

Karina: How many schools for deaf are there and what is the typical length of study?

Hanh: As I live in Ho Chi Minh City, I will give you some numbers so you can see the big picture:

  • There are about 10 primary schools for the deaf here in Ho Chi Minh City. It takes deaf people 10 years to finish primary school;
  • Three of our primary schools provide junior education, but have a maximum of 8 grades;
  • There is just one senior school for Deaf in the whole of Vietnam! It is the “Opening University Education for the Deaf in Vietnam” Project sponsored by the Nippon Foundation.

As for hard of hearing people, they usually study together with hearing people.

Karina: How do deaf people enter the job market? Are there any tricks you can employ to get a job?

Hanh: It is very difficult for the deaf to get a job, just like other people with disabilities. Deaf people work mainly as workers in garment companies, as homemakers, drawing workers, motorcycle repairers, etc… There are no tricks as such, but there are some kind-hearted employers who hire deaf people for specific jobs in their companies.

Karina: How is the situation in Vietnam regarding technical support and sign language interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing?

Hanh: In Vietnam, deaf people can only obtain hearing aids from the state- that’s pretty much it. Interpreters are, in fact, teachers who provide education to deaf students, as there is no professional interpreter training in Vietnam.

Karina: For some people it might be surprising that you are a hard of hearing person but work for a Deaf organization…

Hanh: That’s true, I do. There are no hard of hearing organizations in Vietnam and hard of hearing people (who rely on speech and hearing aids) are considered hearing people here. Yes, it’s true! Sometimes I think that because of that perspective, hard of hearing people face many more difficulties than Deaf people. Do you agree with me?

Karina: Moving on to the next question (and agreeing with you that yes, at times the invisibility of hearing loss with hard of hearing people makes it more difficult for them to have their needs recognized). Please tell us more about your organization.

Hanh: The Ho Chi Minh Deaf Club consists of over 120 deaf, HoH and late deafened persons, and we all participate in weekly meetings together. I teach English to deaf young people, and the President teaches the Vietnamese language to young people, because 80 % of the deaf people here are illiterate and cannot write and read Vietnamese well. We also participate in various meetings with people with disabilities and non-disabled people.

I work there on a voluntary basis, without any salary, as the Deaf Club does not have enough funding to pay anyone. Of course, I also work full time at the Disability Resource and Development Center (DRDC). But you see, I am also a group coordinator for people with hearing loss in the DRDC, and my work for both organizations often intersects and overlaps, and brings good results. So I work for DRDC from Monday to Friday, and then I work for the Deaf Club during nights, and on Saturday and Sunday.

Karina: Are there other organizations for deaf and hard of hearing people in Vietnam?

Hanh: There is one Deaf organization in almost each city/province in Vietnam. For example, we have the Hanoi Deaf Club, Hai Phong Deaf Club, Da Nang Deaf Club, and so on.

Karina: I know that you will be running a workshop at the International Federation for Hard of Hearing People (IFHOH) Congress in Vancouver this July – what will you be presenting?

I will be a speaker in the plenary session Around the World With a Hearing Loss. I’ll present the achievements of this worldwide awareness-raising project, and will make a presentation about the deaf and hard of hearing landscape in Vietnam. Note that the key speaker will be Johan Hammarström. I really admire him and thank him so much. If not for Johan and his project, I wouldn’t be able to attend the Congress.

Karina: What does your hearing loss mean to you and in your life?

Hanh: In my view, no one feels happy with hearing loss or a disability. I had times where I envisioned a sad life without a future, even though I have an University degree. I am lucky to have wonderful parents and siblings who always support and believe in me.

Now I am aware that I cannot change my hearing loss, but my life will continue to change if I try my best and live with a strong will. Today I am doing things that I have always wanted to do. I am capable of doing anything to make “the impossible possible”, as Johan Hammarström has said. And I dream to earn a Master’s Degree in Deaf Education. Who knows- maybe I’ll be able to seize a unique chance to study somewhere, or someone will give me some suggestions as to where I can apply?

SOME FACTS ABOUT VIETNAM

Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, Gulf of Tonkin, and South China Sea, alongside China, Laos, and Cambodia

Area-comparative: slightly larger than New Mexico

Population: 86,116,559 (July 2008 estimate)

Government type: Communist state

Religions: Buddhist 9.3%, Catholic 6.7%, Hoa Hao 1.5%, Cao Dai 1.1%, Protestant 0.5%, Muslim 0.1%, none 80.8% (1999 census)

Languages: Vietnamese (official), English (increasingly favored as a second language), some French, Chinese, and Khmer; mountain area languages (Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian)

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