How CRS is changing life for disabled children in Vietnam

A participant in the CRS/Special Olympics program for disabled children in Vietnam. Credit: Nguyen Minh Duc for CRS
A participant in the CRS/Special Olympics program for disabled children in Vietnam. Credit: Nguyen Minh Duc for CRS

.- Life used to be very isolated for Ho Ngoc Linh, an 11-year-old girl living in central Vietnam.

She lived at home with her family and went to school with her peers. But she could never make the connections she wanted - and needed - because she was deaf.

“If you can imagine; you’re 11 years old, you aren’t able to communicate with your family or your friends or your teachers, you can’t hear anything,” said Leia Isanhart, a senior technical advisor for Catholic Relief Services.

“That’s going to be pretty frustrating. Especially as you get into this adolescent age.”

But Linh’s world shifted this year when she became one of the more than 5,400 children to benefit from Catholic Relief Services’ programs for children and adults with disabilities in Vietnam.

In February, Catholic Relief Services paired Linh with a speech therapist who taught her to read lips. Lip reading was the best option for Linh because her hearing loss was too profound for a hearing aid and nobody in Linh’s community knows sign language.

Linh attends a government-run school where neither her peers nor her teacher know how to communicate with her. But when Linh returns home, her speech therapist helps her to practice lip reading while reviewing lessons from the classroom.

When Linh began speech therapy in February, she was completely nonverbal. By June, she was making dozens of sounds.

“That’s a huge jump...she’s a very bright girl,” Isanhart said.

Isanhart visited Linh’s home in the Thang Bing district of Vietnam’s Quang Nam province in June. She said Linh’s new skills have transformed the 11-year-old’s home life.

Isanhart said Linh’s parents seem less frustrated, because they are finally able to effectively communicate with their daughter. Linh’s parents also have more support thanks to a parent association organized by CRS for parents of children with disabilities. Parents meet in their neighborhoods to learn positive parenting skills and techniques to handle common behavioral challenges, Isanhart said.

“We’re giving these families and children access to speech therapy that then is opening up their world and helping them to communicate,” Isanhart said. “That lessens some of the frustrations within the home.”

But Linh was also making meaningful connections with other children in her neighborhood.

During her visit in June, Isanhart watched as Linh’s speech therapist gathered Linh, Linh’s siblings and several neighbor children into a circle. The therapist then lead all the children in several popular Vietnamese games.

In one game, the children repeated one word while pointing to the object that word defined. Linh was able to look at her siblings and peers to see what that sound or word looked like on the lips of different people while also making associations between the words and the objects they described.  

“Promoting social inclusion through play; it was quite impressive,” Isanhart said.

Linh’s story is just one of thousands from Catholic Relief Services’ long-running program for children and adults with disabilities in Vietnam.

CRS, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary of service this year, has several projects in Vietnam; including tracking unexploded landmines from the Vietnam War, disaster risk reduction and a clean water initiative. But Julie Keane, CRS’ country manager for Vietnam, said work with children and adults with disabilities is CRS’ flagship project in the country.

For more than 20 years, CRS has worked to offer direct services to people like Linh and her family, while also advocating for large-scale changes to make life in Vietnam more welcoming to those with disabilities. Their work ranges from providing ramps and handrails at schools to programs training children with disabilities to recognize and report abusive behavior.

“It’s kind of that dual approach that is really successful and helpful because you’re not just delivering a service that then is done when we’re done, but it’s really changing the overall system of support for children and adults with disabilities,” Keane said.

CRS is also introducing this year organized play and organized sports for the disabled in Vietnam. Through a partnership with the Special Olympics, CRS was able to host an inclusive soccer match and bocce ball competition this June for 100 children with disabilities and dozens of their peers.

“There are so many benefits that come to the child’s development through sport,” Isanhart said. “We’ll be tracking the benefits to all the kids who are playing together and forging friendships between kids.”

CRS’ ultimate goal is to empower communities to organize inclusive sports clubs, Isanhart said. The provinces that hosted the June events procured more than $800 in donations from members of the community.

“It was really great to see the buy-in of so many stakeholders from within the community to support these kids to have the opportunity to play and build their friendships through organized sport,” Isanhart said.  

For Keane, CRS’ program for the disabled in Vietnam is one of the most life-changing programs she has seen in her more than a decade with the Catholic aid agency.

“In Vietnam, it (having a disabled child) is still truly very much still a stigma and so often parents don’t go and get help for their children...and that early intervention is so important,” she said.

“I think for us - for CRS - it’s really about ensuring that all human beings have a life that has value and that the most vulnerable are not left behind. There’s still a lot of work to be done … we are making progress on de-stigmatizing life for people with disabilities but there’s still a ways to go.”

This article was originally published on CNA July 27, 2018.

Tags: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic News, Vietnam