The visually impaired have a lot more potential than people might commonly think of them.
She was all of 10 years old when Men was abandoned by her mother in front of the Saigon Central Post Office in District 1.
Men was also blind.
After hours, her heart-rending cries caught the attention of the local police. They took her to a nursing home near the Thi Nghe Bridge in Binh Thanh District.
Men stayed there for two years, before moving to the Blind Association of HCMC in the same district. She’s been living there for 26 years now.
Her days in the association’s dormitory were peaceful, revolving around a single bed and a pet cat named Quay. But Men wanted more.
She decided to start her own handicraft business. Stuffed animals, handbags, key chains, artificial flowers… she could make many things.
Her work is so remarkably meticulous that even people with sight would have a hard time imitating it.
She asked me how to post pictures of her works online. She has a Facebook account for her business, naturally, but for the last two years, no one bought any of her products. So she said she needed a “different business strategy.”
I asked to see some of the pictures and product descriptions, but she didn’t have much to show. After all, it’s hard to take photos when you can’t see anything. She has to rely on other people to help her.
Men said it was difficult to do business in her small room, so she’s been saving up to move out. She has stashed away about VND2 million ($89) now, saved from her days of selling lottery tickets.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s impossible to find a place in Saigon to both live and do business at VND2 million a month.
Vietnam has approximately three million blind people at present.
The employment rate for the blind, according to some institutions, is roughly 20 percent. They mostly sell lottery tickets, provide massages, or beg for a living.
But several of these jobs are more suited to males. Blind women face many difficulties when interacting with society, since they are much more vulnerable to bullying or harassment. So many of them prefer to stay at home, rather than go out on the streets.
I don’t know why people assume that visually impaired people are limited in what they can do. I’ve heard their singing, tasted their cooking, and seen them do housework. They are just as capable as any of us.
Just won’t do
The government does have policies and institutions designed to support more vulnerable members of our society, but these are nowhere near effective enough to provide them a stable career where they can do well and stand on their own.
More importantly, the assistance offered is based on the assumption that the more vulnerable people, like the blind, can’t do most jobs done by those who are not.
With this mindset that they are limited, somehow, people with visual disabilities in Vietnam are only taught simple jobs that generate little value and income.
So teaching them how to give massages seems to be the bread-and-butter option in many career orientation programs for the blind in our country.
So that’s it? They should join us in accepting that certain “easier” tasks are all that they can do? They should accept our assumptions, and that of the government, that if they can barely get by, it is enough?
It is high time we realized that it is not the blind people’s handicap that deprives them of a better life, but society’s blindness and bias.
A 2008 report from the International Labor Organization of HCMC and the northern province of Quang Ninh said that after participating in career orientation programs, over 50 percent of blind people surveyed wanted to start their own business.
But who’s going to give them funds? Or advice? Logistical support? Who’s going to do all that, if society still regards the blind as helpless people only suited to manual labor?
Blind people aren’t the only people excluded from Vietnam’s startup zeitgeist. The same goes for farmers, ethnic minorities, people with other disabilities and many other population segments. The biggest handicap that these groups of people face is the low expectations that society has of them.
Men has experienced this first-hand. Some people have taken notice of her condition and offered her cash and other gifts. But she knows that their kind gestures come from pity, not because they acknowledge the value of her works.
That knowledge still hurts her.
What Men and her brethren need more than kindness is the opportunity to prove themselves professionally, to showcase their talents and to make the world see that they too exist.
The other day, a motorbike taxi driver refused to receive VND25,000 from Men, despite her saying that she had enough to pay. At that moment, she just wanted to say: “I don’t need your money. I just need a decent job.”
But let him be, she thought. People love the feeling of satisfaction they get when helping someone less fortunate than them, she said.
Men’s going to move out once the monsoon season ends. “I’ll do so by the end of this year. But first, I have to focus on my business.”
*Hong Phuc is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are her own.