I still remember our first encounter with Kim Van, head of the “Assist People with Disabilities on Public Transportation” project, when we organized our first UPSHIFT outreach session at the Center for Disability Research & Capacity Development (DRD) in Vietnam. Van has weak leg muscles and is reliant on a wheelchair to move around but there is nothing weak about her when she talks about her dreams. Her strong will and clear motivation makes her the ideal UPSHIFT participant – young, focused, and determined to make the most of the opportunity.

A long way from home, on her own.

Van is originally from Quang Nam, a small province 800 kilometers away from Ho Chi Minh City. Both Van and her brother have mobility disabilities. They were born with Polio, which is degenerative and continues to get worse with time, as her brother is.

Due to her condition, Van has faced many complications in her educational journey. In grade school, she nearly dropped out many times because she felt sorry for her parents who had to carry her to school everyday. Despite the challenges, Van excelled in school and was recognized as an honor student for all twelve years.

When it was time for Van to take the university entrance exam, things did not go as expected. She did not pass the test but Van did not dwell on this roadblock. Instead, she quickly regained her confidence and attempted the exam again. This time, her hard work paid off. She was accepted to the University of Social Sciences and Humanities as a Psychology major.

Kim Van on the left side at Outreach event for disabilities at The Disability Research & Capacity Development Center (DRD), District 9, HCMC
Kim Van on the left side at Outreach event for disabilities at The Disability Research; Capacity Development Center (DRD), District 9, HCMCUPSHIFT Outreach. Photo: UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Outreach/ October 2015

After convincing her parents to let her move 800km away from home, by herself, to attend university in Ho Chi Minh city, Van got one step closer to achieving her dreams. After two years in the university dormitory, Van proved herself quite capable both in school and daily life. Her friends who are always willing to help her out provide her the biggest inspiration to overcome her daily challenges as a student.

The Struggle of People with Disabilities

When I asked Van about her challenges, she was honest, but optimistic. She recognized that different disabilities present different challenges, but overall life is hard for people with disabilities. Van has had to deal with indifference, misunderstandings and prejudices from people without empathy.Before joining DRD, Van herself felt uncomfortable interacting with others. At DRD, she was able to connect with others who share similar experiences and challenges and learn about new opportunities, such as UPSHIFT.

Kim Van in blue T-shirt in the middle at Outreach event for disabilities at The Disability Research & Capacity Development Center (DRD), District 9, HCMC UPSHIFT Outreach © UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Outreach/ October 2015
Kim Van in blue T-shirt in the middle at Outreach event for disabilities at The Disability Research & Capacity Development Center (DRD), District 9, HCMC UPSHIFT Outreach. Photo: UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Outreach/ October 2015

The dream of helping people with disabilities

Van dreams of helping people with disabilities overcome challenges in daily transportation so they can integrate more seamlessly into society. Van knows that she cannot transform public infrastructure to accommodate people with disabilities in a short amount of time. Instead, she has chosen to use a more humane and practical approach: equip as many people as possible with the necessary skills to help people with disabilities move on public transportation. She wants to build up the general public’s knowledge of the difficulties people like her experience, and show them how to empathize with the person and equip them with the skills to make a difference.

Her personal experience is the source of her inspiration to help others. Many of the places she needed to go for University had accessibility issues for her. Thankfully, she was able to get around with the help of friends. This experience has led her to believe that when people with disabilities are able to ask for help and people in their community are able to contribute support, many transportation challenges can reduced. Van also hopes to raise young people’s awareness about helping others, not just those with disabilities but anyone who is less fortunate.

From left to right: Mr.Vo Duc Duy (mentor), Nguyen Thanh Lanh (supporter), Phan Thi Kim Van & Nguyen Thi Thuong (participants in blue T-shirts), UPSHIFT Workshop © UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Workshop/ Truong Viet Hung/ November 2015
From left to right: Mr.Vo Duc Duy (mentor), Nguyen Thanh Lanh (supporter), Phan Thi Kim Van & Nguyen Thi Thuong (participants in blue T-shirts), UPSHIFT Workshop. Photo: UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Workshop/ Truong Viet Hung/ November 2015

Can UPSHIFT help realize her dream?

Van told me she felt proud and happy when UPSHIFT gave her the opportunity to pursue her dream. She highlighted that some of the skills UPSHIFT taught her, such as professionalism, communications, and project planning, have already made an impact on her project. She expressed great excitement to continue her project in the workshop and also, hopefully, in the incubation program.

Finally, I asked Van if she wanted to share anything with Vietnam’s youth. She thought of her blind peers right away and responded as such, and I quote: “You can only see one color, but you live with fire in your heart, and thus you are the most beautiful.”

If you want to keep up to date with Kim Van and her team, follow us at upshift.vye.vn.

Phan Thi Kim Van (participant) UPSHIFT Workshop © UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Workshop/ Truong Viet Hung/ November 2015 
Phan Thi Kim Van (participant) UPSHIFT Workshop. Photo: UNICEF/Innovations Lab Ho Chi Minh/UPSHIFT Workshop/ Truong Viet Hung/ November 2015

Written by Thu Tran (UPSHIFT Coordinator) & Dai Cao (UPSHIFT Facilitator)
Edited by Brian Cotter UNICEF Innovation Lab: Vietnam

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