I got to explore another part of the Vietnamese culture today, something that I thought was almost taboo. A centre for people with special needs. My reasons for thinking that having special needs here was taboo, was firmly based on other international volunteers experience in various special needs centres.
I have heard some horror stories, from children being slapped on the face to beaten with a stick. I have often consoled many friends who worked in such centres. Often these centres are day care but there are residential centres too.
Luckily I experienced the opposite at the centre I visited today. It is a vocational centre for people with special needs. People work together to make the most magnificent cards I have ever seen.
I did not know what to expect on the way there but I am thrilled to have made the early Sunday morning journey. It is something I will never forget. I was a little apprehensive after having heard so many negative stories about special needs centres, but this vocational centre was a breath of fresh air.
The centre itself is 40 km from Hanoi. This is because the land was given to the owner Thuong, by her family. It makes sense as rent prices get higher the closer you get to central Hanoi.
When we arrived we were greeted by some of the workers at the centre. One girl could not speak, but it did not stop us from communicating and I discovered how fascinated she was with my tattoos!!
Not only did I witness the arduous task involved in making the cards, I had the opportunity to make one of my own. I began by drawing a flower on cardboard which was used as a backdrop for creating my masterpiece. Not long into it I wished I had drawn a smaller flower!! Having said that I had support from Tuy, one of the workers there. I could not have done it without her help and I was very pleased with my finished product.
This centre is run by Thuong who also has special needs. She was propped into a stroller for our visit and was so unbelievably welcoming and friendly. I could not wait to ask her about the centre. Luckily, Ms Nga volunteered to act as a translator and I am so happy she did.
The employees of the vocational centre are amazing. I had a fantastic time learning about the centre and loved having the opportunity to make cards with the children. The work that goes into one card is difficult to understand until you see and experience it first hand.
Today taught me that it is easy to get bogged down in the negatives, particularly after hearing other volunteers experience in special needs centres. However, assumptions can be dangerous and prevent us from focusing on the positives. Not all centres here are shrouded in cultural controversy. Not all people here view special needs as taboo. This particular centre strives to help people with special needs have an equal right to opportunity in the workplace.
1. Can you tell me a bit about the centre.
She started off learning how to make the cards in 2003, 14 years ago. The first ones she did not make with paper, but with buttons. To make these products is very difficult and she cannot sew, so she decided to change them. She then messaged her friend on facebook and wanted to know if she would be interested in helping her to make the cards. As the cards are easier to make, which they can sell to customers. Two years later her parents helped her to build the centre using family land, so she did not have to pay for rent. And around 2007 they decided to employ more people with special needs and they work together to make the cards.
Their salary depends on the product they make. For example, if the quality of the product is very good, they can earn 4 and a half million (vietnamese dong) per month. If the quality is not so good they can earn around 2 and a half million (VD) a month. The government does not offer any support for this organisation. Their product is sold in other countries because the competition for handmade products is very high in Vietnam. So they depend on Vietnamese in other countries who come back and buy their cards.
The Vietnamese shops in Hanoi, for example, don’t want to sell these products because they are a little bit more expensive. For example, 1 card sells in a shop for 20,000 dong, where these cards are handmade and are more expensive because they are very difficult to make. They cost around 35,000 dong which means they can’t compete with the other products sold in shops. This means the shops will not stock these cards to sell to customers. So this centre is only financially supported from sales to Vietnamese in other countries and when there are national events and they require very high quality and don’t care about the cost, then they will buy the cards in Vietnam.
2. Why did she decide to set up the centre?
She herself has special needs so she understands how difficult it is for people with special needs to get a job and to be independent. At the beginning she worked for herself and after that she wanted to make and sell products with the other people who have special needs. That is why she opened the vocational centre for people with special needs. And she considered the fact that she did not want to be dependent on her parents, because in the future her parents may be unable to help her. So she wanted to learn how to help herself.
This is why she does this. It’s for herself and for the other people who have special needs. She does not only want to take care of herself but she also wants to be able to take care of her parents now that their older.