By Tran Thi Thanh Huong
The first event of International Cane Awareness Day in Vietnam occurred in October 2011, at Nguyen Dinh Chieu Blind School, Ho Chi Minh City. An overall theme was chosen for this event: “The white-tipped cane is an adaptive, functional cane used by blind persons, which alerts people to give priority to the person using the cane.”
This message was the dream of a blind teacher and trainer in Mobility and Orientation. His name was Le Dan Bach Viet, a well-known leader of the disability rights grassroots movement in Ho Chi Minh City. Bach Viet was the first in Vietnam to receive a master’s degree in Mobility and Training. He got his degree from Philadelphia’s School of Optometry in 2006. The Ford Foundation provided for the necessary scholarship funding to achieve this goal.
Sadly, Bach Viet died of cancer in February 2011. Due to the voice of Bach Viet’s spirit of advocacy, a group of resource experts and advocates work tirelessly in being focused on the needs of blind students, mobility, and orientation training.
At the moment, there is a scarcity of trained individual instructors throughout Vietnam. Bach Viet trained the students on orientation and mobility. Grace Mishler, Global Mission volunteer was one of the benefactors upon her arrival in Vietnam. This group of experts is helping to shape a future field of studies in Mobility and Orientation Training. The primary advocate is headmaster of a well-known blind school, Nguyen Quoc Phong. Tran Thi Thanh Huong, Saigon Times journalist, is in charge of media activities in promoting the need of cane awareness in Vietnam. Within eight months after the death of Bach Viet, they were able to organize a first-time event in Vietnam from an idea suggested by Bach Viet before he died: our own International Cane Awareness Day.
2011 International Cane Awareness Day
Over 200 participants gathered in October at Nguyen Dinh Chieu Blind School, Ho Chi Minh City, where Bach Viet was a teacher, instructor, and trainer in Mobility and Orientation. Participants included blind students of special high schools like Nguyen Dinh Chieu School, Thien An School, Nhat Hong Center, Huynh De Nhu Nghia Shelter, and National College of Education 3, along with many individuals, teachers, people with disabilities, NGOs, and volunteers.
This event held a press conference in which journalists asked questions to experts and blind people about the conditions and difficulties in mobility of blind people. Participants and blind students then marched with their white-tipped canes on the streets around Nguyen Dinh Chieu School. That image attracted special attention of the press, and was reported and broadcast on many prestigious national newspapers and television channels. The slogan of the event was, “Please give priority to the persons with white canes.”
2012 International Cane Awareness Day
In 2012, the location changed to National Vietnam University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. It was initiated by social work students in relationship to the Faculty of Social Work. The message conveyed by the planning committee was, “Blindness is not from the eyes, but from the look.” This slogan was inspired by a saying of a blind student: “I don’t wish that I can see because it is impossible. I only wish that I am seen in people’s eyes.”
This message was to remind the community and society to recognize the existence and needs of blind people, including the needs for education, mobility, communication, assistance, and simply an effort to live a normal life. Through the talk and sharing between the students and blind persons, the students had a chance to understand more about blind people’s needs for communication and education. The event ended with marching collectively together with white canes.
2013 International Cane Awareness Day
The location of the event remained at National Vietnam University of Social Sciences and Humanities. The message or theme of this year was to “Walk happily and independently.” This message was chosen so that with mobility and orientation training, blind students can have more confidence in their navigation with helpful assistance like the cane and peer helpers. A banner of the event read, “Walk happily with the white cane.”
This year there was a shift that occurred prior to the event. Social Work students, volunteers, and blind students practiced for hours over a course of one month in presenting a “flash mob” dance with the cane in which, the blind students were able to perform a complex motion of hands, canes, and feet from a traditional Vietnamese country song. Additionally, blind students engaged in a talk show, a Braille game show, and a contest in naming a piece of music.
The sighted and blind students danced together with the canes in a Vietnamese traditional song. What came out of this momentous event was mutually benefitting. Blind students were empowered and felt like equal participants and took leadership, while social work students learned better understanding of the life of a blind student. It gave everyone confidence to mobilize community events through a team work approach. The primary benefactors of this event were Nhat Hong and Thien An Blind Schools who together have 17 blind students attending university.
The students said that they were very impressed and touched by the inner strength to overcome difficulties and the optimistic spirit of the blind students. Since the blind students this year had time to prepare and practice in advance before the Cane Awareness Day, they were not just passive participants, but rather active, excited, and equally contributing. In other words, they were not just guests but they were given empowerment, as being the hosts to present their life experience with a voice of confidence and ability.
The media was also pretty successful in delivering the message. Many images about the life of blind people, their independence, and confidence in life, were uploaded into websites and recognized, well-known newspapers.
Blind people in Vietnam still have many messages needing to be delivered to the society, so that they can have a better and more independent life.
These past three years can be summarized:
1. It takes a collective teamwork effort in the spirit of volunteerism to keep this yearly public service educational event happening.
2. The hope of being based at the university follows the dream of Bach Viet and ongoing advocates that the university will be an anchor in training much needed degrees in Mobility and Orientation and Low Vision Rehabilitation.
You can see more about the Cane Awareness Day in Vietnam at www.facebook.com/ngay.caygaytrang?fref=ts&ref=br_tf .
-- Tran Thi Thanh Huong is a Saigon Times News journalist. Grace Mishler, whose work in Vietnam is supported by the Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service office, helped review this report for Newsline. It was translated by Nguyen Vu Cat Tien. Photos were taken by Tran Thi Thanh Huong, Grace Mishler, Pham Do Nam, Pham Dung (Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper).