From a distance, The QuangNam Center for the Homeless and the Disabled, in Hoi An, Vietnam, looks like it could be an inviting Spanish Villa. As I walked by on my way to the marketplace one morning, I peered through the gates and saw a young man walking towards me. I’d been asking myself a question since arriving in Vietnam; “Is there any autism is this part of the world?” and standing in front of me, smiling through the gate, was the answer to that question.
After smiling back and then walking on towards the marketplace, I couldn’t get the young man out of my head. I thought about him, and others, in this less than fully developed country, “How are the disabled integrated into Vietnamese culture, how do they live?” I resolved to return the next day and find out more.
Early the following morning I walked back over to the Center with no real plan in mind. Overnight I had researched and read some basic articles about autism and disability in Vietnam. The facts were swirling in my head as I walked.
“Vietnam has one of the largest disability populations in the world.… Babies born with physical deformities due to Agent Orange.… Over 4.5 million people exposed.… A 50 times higher incidence of autism from 2000 to 2007, a 116 fold increase in Saigon.… People with disabilities referred to as invalids.… People with disabilities not well accepted…Often hidden by family members.… Reports of torture and abuse.... No disability parking or wheelchair accessibility. No wheelchairs.” All I could think was how unsophisticated it was in Vietnam; it left me apprehensive about what I would find inside The Quangnam Center.
Surprisingly the Center’s gate was wide open and numerous residents were milling around in the courtyard.
I walked in and asked to see someone in charge and hopefully someone who spoke English. I was able to locate the head nurse, a young woman with reasonably good language skills, and after asking, was granted permission for a tour and to take pictures. She led the way and I got the impression she was very proud of the facility. I tried from the beginning not to judge things based on American standards.
The Center was laid out on two floors. The first floor had meetings rooms, a kitchen, and offices, all in various states of decline. It also housed the “non-ambulatory” wing, several large rooms with numerous beds like a hospital nursery. There were no mattresses on the beds, just wooden boards and bamboo mats. I saw no wheel chairs and residents appeared to be carried when needed, some of the semi-ambulatory residents had walkers. Oral hygiene was lacking with lots of rotting smiles and everyone was quite thin, but being thin, like sleeping on bamboo mats, was common in Vietnam.
On the walk upstairs (no elevator) I learned additional details about the center. It served adults ages 16 and older, with close to 100 residents throughout the year. The Center is government funded, with a staff of nurses and care attendants. It is greatly in need of everything, and especially medical equipment, from thermometers to wheelchairs. Most of the residents don’t work, their disabilities are much too severe, but they do have recreational activities.
A tour of the second floor revealed a number of large bedrooms with four or five beds in each room. Each resident had a bed frame with a bamboo mat and a dresser. I saw no televisions, computers or much in the way of personal belongings, everything was relatively primitive and in disrepair. There was visible corrosion of the plaster, and mold on the walls. By American standards the place was dirty and deteriorated.
The windows were barred and the doors had locks on the outside to keep residents in at night. Bedpans were scattered under beds.
In spite of everything, the place had an uncanny buoyancy about it. The residents were all smiling, and incredibly warm and friendly. I made a comment to the nurse about how happy everyone seemed, and she replied, “Because they loved!” as though it was a given. Her response caught me off guard and my throat tightened, my eyes teared up. What I had mistaken for her pride in the institution was actually love and caring for the residents. It was evident in the way she spoke and how patient and kind she was with them.
We traveled back downstairs and through the courtyard. I had a very warm feeling as I concluded my tour and visited with several of the residents, but also a desire to help. Their lives could be made so much better by wheelchairs and adaptive equipment. It pained me to see the lack.
In reflecting back, I thought about two primary things. First, that I am so grateful to live in Minnesota, where people with disabilities have rights, have funding, have equipment and transportation, and safe clean places to live. I have also thought, that in spite of the lack of these things, the residents at the QuangNam Center do have a level of caring that can’t be replaced by equipment or cleanliness, a level of caring that meets a very intrinsic human need for love and respect. Still, I wish for those residents that they could have both the caring and the equipment, and I look forward to seeing the progress Vietnam is able to make over time.
The QuangNam Center for the Homeless and the Disabled does accept private donations, to help go to: https://sites.google.com/site/hoianhomelesscenter/english
Dr. Sheryl Grassie
Executive Director, Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities