I embarked on this journey when I lighted upon an article of an initiative of Australian supermarkets opening one hour earlier for the elderlies and people with disabilities. I was so excited to share the article on my Facebook and the idea with my UNDP colleagues and seek advice to replicate the model in Viet Nam.
However, I immediately got negative feedback from my peers with disabilities and some others, saying that the initiative is not applicable in Viet Nam. To begin with, there is not such a scarcity of food and necessities in Vietnamese supermarkets that anyone might be disadvantaged in accessing them. Secondly, independent living is not culturally popular amongst Vietnamese older population and the community with disabilities. They often stay with their families, and their family members help them with daily groceries. Last but not least, only 5.7% supermarkets in Viet Nam are accessible, which disables wheelchair users to go shopping on their own in their daily life, let alone in the pandemic situation.
Those comments left me in the middle of nowhere… I wondered if it is true that Vietnamese PWDs faced no difficulties at all in the midst of the pandemic. It is completely wrong with what I had learnt about their vulnerabilities in crisis circumstances. I am a person with disability (visual impairment) myself, but I recently realized that I may not have a thorough understanding about the needs of my own community. What particular challenges are persons with disabilities facing when everyone is struggling with their adaptation to the new social distancing lifestyle? How have they been impacted by COVID-19 in recent months and weeks? Those questions urged me to conduct a rapid assessment to bettter learn about PWDs’ specific challenges and opportunities in this unprecedented time. My initiative received full support from our UNDP senior leaders for its immediate implementation.
A survey questionnaire was instantly sketched with more than 20 questions, covering the health and socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities. When finalizing the questionnaire, we made sure to consult with some key organizations of and for people with disabilities, as well as with the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs.
Once we had a good questionnaire, we wondered how the survey could be implemented and reach those persons with disabilities who are the most isolated. For the sake of time interest, we decided to move fast toward our goal of getting a snapshot of health and socio-economic challenges in COVID-19 of Vietnamese persons with disabilities . The rapid assessment was launched on SurveyMonkey on 14 April. After the two first days, we received many complaints from potential respondents that the questionnaire could not be filled in by phone or navigated smoothly with their screen reader. Although I am a screen reader user myself and had tested the online questionnaire before its launch, I could not anticipate those problems for Android users or those who are not quite familiar with online surveys. We would have deeply regreted if respondents left the questionnaire after few seconds when they failed to load the form on their devices.
We tried to respond quickly by designing a Google Form which was accessible. The Google Form version was well received by people with disabilities and we quickly got three times as many entries as in SurveyMonkey. We were really learning by doing and could deeply appreciate the significance of accessibility for all.
Although we were about to reach our target of 500 entries after the first week, the deadline was extended for one more week to allow more time to reach persons with disabilities who do not have Internet access. That is the way we walk the talk and apply the principle of “leaving no one behind”: we tried to reach more persons with disabilities with phone and face-to-face interviews. UNDP colleagues and staff of organizations of people with disabilities voluntarily supported me with these important tasks, entailing many touching stories behind the numbers. I interviewed a person with physical and visual disabilities who worked as a WHO ambassador to inspire and counsel those who are affected by tuberculous meningitis like her. Although she has multiple disabilities and she cannot earn much with her job, she still tries to support other people with disabilities. During March, she could not run any talk show at hospitals, which was her only income source. I was deeply touched by another story told by a woman with visual impairment in Nghe An province. She is supporting her whole family with her job as a massage therapist. Her husband has another type of disability and cannot work. COVID-19 also deprived her of her livelihood when all massage clinics were closed. In addition, she could not register for the monthly disability allowance since she moved to her new place, and she is going to deliver her second baby soon.
Once the survey was closed, the data analysis and report writing were completed within a single week, thanks to which my Excel and skills on statistics have been improved. Meaningful and striking numbers gradulaly appeared on the screen. Some surprised me, such as the number of PWDs concerned about their health during the pandemic which was lower than those concerned about their financial conditions. And many stats strengthened my arguments to develop recovery programmes for PWDs.
We decided to organize a livestream to share our findings and include personal testimonies from persons with disabilities. We decided to run everything live, which was a huge challenge for us under the time pressure. We also had sign language interpretation during the whole event and interactive comments from viewers on the UNDP Viet Nam Facebook page.
The launch event went very well, and we received excellent coverage by TV, online and printed newspapers. After just three days, the event which was recorded has now been viewed more than 8,500 times. We managed to reach out to many PWDs who live in the provinces and never attended a UNDP event. No word could describe my exhiliration when seeing meaningful facts and figures we have collected in the rapid assessment appear on newspapers. We had succeeded in highlighting the challenges faced by PWDs during COVID-19. We also received positive and enthusiastic feedback from so many PWDs and organisations of PWDs thanking us for drawing attention to their situation. Personally, I have also really enjoyed the team effort. I have never worked with a big and harmonious team like this and deeply appreciate their proactiveness, responsibility and professionalism. This is a great start in our long journey ahead to find development partners who share our concerns about critical needs of persons with disabilities and support them in post-COVID-19 recovery.
The report “Rapid Assessment of the Socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities in Viet Nam” can be downloaded both in English and Vietnamese at: https://www.vn.undp.org/content/vietnam/en/home/library/democratic_governance/ImpactPwDs.html