My used-to-be-unspoken story
“Why do you have a disability?” “What happened to you?” – These are the questions I often received from other people.
When I was born, there was some discussion about my disability. Some people believed that I might have been a victim of Agent Orange as my father had served in the military in Quang Tri, an area deeply affected by Agent Orange, one year after the Vietnam War ended. Other people thought it was because my mother gave birth to me when she was in her 40s. The rumors also said that I had to pay a price for my past life. To me, the answer has always been, “I have had disabilities since I was born. That is all.”
I have never thought that I am more “special” than others even though my fingers and legs are not like those of either my mother, my father, my brother, or my friends. I know I am different from them. However, it does not mean I cannot do anything they can. I can do it in my own way, which might be different from theirs.
To other people, these kinds of discussions on my disability might be nothing or just simple talk, but I have to say it affected me for a long time. When responding to adults talking about my disability, I was often told that I shouldn’t as I was a kid and I had to keep my manners. Being prevented from speaking back to the prejudice labeled on me made me feel depressed. Afterward, it always scared me when I was stared at and/or my disability became a “topic” of conversation. I kept silent, pretended that I did not hear anything and tried to escape from those things.
Disability is not and should not be a problem
In 2017, I started engaging in an Organization of Persons with Disabilities (OPD) in Ha Noi and got a job as a research assistant in the “Transforming Disability Knowledge, Research and Activism” (TDKRA) project, funded by the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This project is a continuation of another project on knowledge mobilization and policy advocacy which started in 2015 in partnership with UNICEF Viet Nam. Honestly, at first, it was not easy for me to share my experiences on exclusion as those unspoken stories always belonged to my inner world as secrets. However, the more I engaged in the TDKRA project, with OPDs and UNICEF Viet Nam, the more I understood the importance of speaking out and my responsibility in generating positive changes for myself, for other youth with disabilities, and for the community.
I realized that my disability was not considered a problem in assessing who I am or what I can do. This helped strengthen my determination and eradicated my negative thinking toward disability. The reason I used to feel uncomfortable was not my disability, it was the way some people were treating me because of my disability. It is a part of me, and I am proud of what I have experienced in both inclusion and exclusion to define myself today.
Working with different groups of youth with disabilities including girls with disabilities, youth in street situations and youth from ethnic minorities, made me realize that we are still facing a lot of challenges, and that a lot of stories remain unheard. That is why I strongly believe youth empowerment and opening up safe and resilient spaces for them to share their perspectives plays an essential role in strengthening youth’s capacities and self-determination.
My ways to represent voices of youth with disabilities
My experiences in inclusive education systems and community engagement, have shown me the barriers and opportunities that can arise for personal development and meaningful participation for adolescents with disabilities. Therefore, over the last five years, as a youth with disabilities, I have been working on addressing youth empowerment and fostering the collective engagement and activism of youth with disabilities in Viet Nam and in transnational networks.
I have had opportunities to be a panelist in some transnational workshops to spread the voices of Vietnamese adolescents to more people in the world. I joined “Our Journey: An Interdisciplinary Conversation with Women and Girls with Disabilities across Borders” in Canada (2019) where I represented the messages of girls and women with disabilities in Viet Nam to the audience in Canada who have a different context to us. It was a great opportunity to let them know our strengths, ability and vitality.
Recently, I had an amazing experience in a regional Conference on “Young People’s Rights to Civic Engagement in East Asia and the Pacific: Building pathways to empowerment” (2021), speaking about the civic engagement ecosystem and practices for youth with disabilities. I feel empowered and motivated by gaining access to civic power in order to meaningfully represent youth with disabilities, and contribute my leadership towards a more inclusive and sustainable community.
“When you were 2 years old, we had dinner sitting on the floor together. We were holding our bowls with our hands, while you were putting it on your knee and it was so lovely to me”, my mom told me. This small story is just for fun but now, when I think about that, my self-belief becomes stronger. My left hand will not be able to hold the whole bowl by itself but it works well when I put the bowl on my knee and the left hand supports to keep it. I will never walk the way the majority of people do, and I will do things in different ways. But that’s me. My differences won’t raise any extra challenges if I get the same opportunities as others and the tools to ensure there are no barriers in accessing them.
Many challenges still await on the road to inclusion, but it does not mean there are no opportunities for youth with disabilities. There is a long journey to come but we are all here to make a breakthrough for ourselves and the world.
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