When wheelchair user Hieu Luu goes outside her home in Hanoi, the cracked, street stall-covered pavements are inaccessible, ATMs are unreachable, most buses do not offer access ramps and city traffic is a terrifying frenzy of motorbikes and SUVs.
Yet Hieu, who is campaigning for change on TikTok, refuses to stay at home in fear.
Hieu, who has cerebral palsy, has garnered millions of views on TikTok after making videos that reveal the fraught reality of accessing public transport and services in the Vietnamese capital or even just crossing chaotic city streets.
“Most of my videos are about accessibility,” she says. “For example, which bank can a wheelchair user get into? Until now, I’ve made 20 videos, mainly in Vietnam but also in Japan. Two went viral on TikTok, gaining over four million views.”
The 32-year-old’s short clips reveal, with characteristic cheekiness, how people with disabilities can access buses in Hanoi, how wheelchair users are sometimes ignored, and compares crossing the road in Japan and Vietnam.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Hieu also spent more than a year testing disability access in Japan with the Duskin leadership programme. The impressive accessibility she encountered there – she was even able to go skiing in a wheelchair – opened her eyes to another way of living.
"When I came back to Vietnam,” Hieu says, “I couldn’t find any information regarding accessibility. Even when I see the bus, they only show where to go. They don't show which bus is accessible, so I had to learn by myself how to use the bus.”
There are 6.2 million people with disabilities in Vietnam, accounting for about 7% of the population, according to a report published by Unicef in 2019.
A disability law enacted by the government in 2010 should ensure people with disabilities are able to participate in all areas of society, but it is rarely enforced and does not cover discrimination.
"I contacted the bus company to encourage them to share more information about the access ramp,” Hieu adds. “In the beginning, even the marketing team was not aware of what they have. I showed them the videos. I told them that this is what you have to share... Why don't you share it?
“Most of the people who use the bus in Hanoi are from minority groups,” she continued. “Old people, children, people who cannot ride motorbikes, and people like me. Why don't you share information with your target users?”
VinBus, one of only two companies in Hanoi offering access ramps, has responded to Hieu, saying they will share more information on accessibility and include people with disabilities in their marketing videos.
Hieu also runs a support group for around 50 people with cerebral palsy, which aims to encourage them to go out often.
Dinh Quoc Tuan is one of the people who attends Hieu’s support group. Although he requires a specialised van to travel long distances, of which there is only one in the entire country, he has been living independently from his family for 12 years.
Tuan has also run campaigns to ensure that service providers such as banks as well as bus and train companies change their attitude towards minority groups.
In Vietnam, almost all government offices, trains and cash machines remain inaccessible.“In general, Hanoi is not accessible for people with disabilities, so it is very difficult to move around,” Tuan says. “The most challenging for me is the inaccessible roads and no support from the government for personal assistants.”
Tuan receives one million Vietnamese Dong (around RM190) from the government each month, but says: “What would make my life easier is having accessible transport and a stable income. One million Vietnamese Dong per month is not enough."
Amid rampant discrimination against wheelchair users and the inaccessibility of vital public services, many people with disabilities either stay at home in fear, or are kept at home by their families, yet Hieu remains resolute in her response:
“Even though we had the disability law issued in 2010,” Hieu adds, “Nobody knows what accessibility means. That's why so many wheelchair users don't dare to go out. And that's why I decided to make the videos – to encourage more people to go out.” – dpa