Beyond statistics: Spotlight on disability in the province of Quang Binh, Vietnam

Faculty of Social Sciences
From the Field

By Natasha

Mines Action Program Officer, Mines Action Canada

White girl with brown hair in a shop with her head close to an exotic lamp. Black board in the background with documents pinned to it
A forest and a mountain in the background. Brown big sculptures in the foreground on a field
"This internship has forced me to think beyond statistics and peer-reviewed sources, as they are not always factually representative or even available for different regions of the world"

Natasha, 4th year, Conflict Studies and Human Rights
Internship Country: Vietnam
Canadian NGO: Mines Action Canada
Local NGO: Association for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities(AEPD)

I am approaching the end of my three-month internship with the Association for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (AEPD) in Vietnam's Quang Binh province.  The AEPD is dedicated to empowering individuals with disabilities, including survivors of landmines, by addressing various facets of their lives, such as healthcare, social inclusion, policy advocacy, livelihood development, and climate change disaster risk management, primarily in rural communities. Throughout my internship, I have mainly contributed to the development of grant proposals, which has provided me with in-depth insights into the association's projects and the realities of persons with disabilities(PWDs) in the province of Quang Binh.

During my time in Vietnam, I've come across a greater number of individuals with visible physical disabilities than ever before. However, upon exploring the statistics surrounding disability in Vietnam, it's striking to find that only around 7% of the population is officially classified as having a disability. This is based on a 2016 statistical study which is now considered outdated by the UNICEF due to its age, however there is not any more recent data. Contrasting this figure with Canada’s reported disability rate of 27%, according to the 2022 Canadian survey on Disability of citizens 15 years or older, there seems to be a large disparity. The difference between the statistics and my lived experiences has made me more deeply examine the various factors that influence disability definitions and perceptions worldwide.

According to article 1 of the 1998 ordinance of disabled persons of Vietnam, ‘Disabled persons by definition of this Ordinance, irrespective of the causes of the disability, are defective of one or many parts of the body or functions which are shown in different forms of disability, and which reduce the capability of activity and causes many difficulties to work, life and studies.’ It is important to note that a differentiation exists in the level of hardship experienced by individuals, as governmental support is typically reserved for those with severe to very severe disabilities. This definition is what impacts the statistics on disability and may skew international perceptions of disability in Vietnam.

The province of Quang Binh has a population of approximately 900,000 individuals and is home to over 45,000 individuals with disabilities, according to the Quang Binh statistical yearbook of 2022, a number that unfortunately continues to rise due to various factors, including epidemics, natural disasters, and accidents. The main causes of disability in the province, and in the world, is diseases. However, Vietnam has several extra factors that cause disability. During the American-Vietnamese war, the herbicide agent orange was used to defoliate terrain to facilitate combat. To this day, people are still affected by it, as it entered waterways, permeated the ground and is now present in most plants and animals. Effects range from cancer, birth defects, malformations, and skin diseases. Another factor causing disabilities is unexploded landmines, in the Quang Binh province around every square meter has been hit with around 65 pounds of explosives, according to peace trees Vietnam. Though it is difficult to know where they are, many unexploded landmines still remain and statistics on current victims are scarce. Traffic accidents are also another prevalent factor of disability in Vietnam. In 2016, 374,550 people were estimated to have been seriously injured due to a traffic accident, according to road safe facility. Though statistics on consequential disabilities are not available, it can be assumed that they do incur.

Obtaining statistics on disability, landmines, Agent Orange, traffic accidents and other related issues in Vietnam proves to be challenging due to the associated costs of collecting them. Consequently, many NGOs, including the AEPD, opt to allocate their funds directly to supporting their communities, which is a pressing and essential need.

Disability is an intersectional issue that is greatly impacted by gender, poverty and climate change. The province of Quang Binh is one of the most affected by climate change in the country because of its geographical location along a monsoon belt. The province suffers from 5-6 floods per year, not counting landslides and other natural disasters. These floods disproportionately impact PWDs in low-income households as they often have unsafe homes that are not sufficiently strong to sustain floods, do not have the funds to rebuild after a flood, often don’t evacuate their homes due to lack of accessible transportation or fear of losing their property.

So what can be done to better support PWDs in Vietnam? There is no easy solution, but rather changes need to be made on all scales of the state. From speaking with coworkers and other experts on disability in Vietnam I have collected some actionable solutions. First, parameters on who is considered to be a PWDs need to be widened to support more individuals. However, as the government does provide financial support to some PWDs, defining more people as being disabled may put stress on the national budget. Second, providing education for PWDs and their communities on their rights is essential to allow PWDs to access the services, opportunities and treatment they are legally entitled to. Third, providing disability centred disaster risk management training is essential to ensure PWDs are safely being evacuated during yearly floods and storms. Fourth, challenging stigma around PWDs through educational campaigns to sensibilise communities to their needs, abilities, and stories is a key part to supporting their social inclusion. These are only a few of the approaches currently being implemented by the AEPD to improve conditions for PWDs in the Quang Binh province, and they have been successful on local scale!

This internship has forced me to think beyond statistics and peer-reviewed sources, as they are not always factually representative or even available for different regions of the world. Though helpful, these resources can actually limit support for regions in need as they can paint a false picture of the realities of a community.