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Accessibility for people with disabilities: A significant change in a WOBA staff’s perception

During her 2 years of working for WOBA Vietnam, the most significant change Ms Tuyet Pham experienced as a WOBA project official was the substantial increase of knowledge of accessibility and social inclusion for people with disability (PWD).

Previously, PWD-related issues such as accessibility and accessible structures (handrails, ramps…) did not really capture Tuyet’s attention despite her prior basic understanding of these topics. Only when she got the opportunities to participate in the trainings on GESI, particularly on PWD, and involved in developing GESI guidebooks for project stakeholders (VIHEMA and WU) did her interest grow and she gain profound insights into disability accessible and inclusive WASH. It dawned on her that accessibility needs to be viewed from different perspectives, including communications and construction techniques. There also has been a fundamental shift in her perception of social inclusion. She used to see disability inclusion simply as providing PWD with assistive devices for them to overcome their physical deficits (wheelchairs or crutches for people with mobility impairment, for example). Now she understands that inclusion is a whole new matter of improving the living environment and public awareness of disability. Inclusion does not mean taking pity on PWD, giving them money or doing PWD-targeted charity. It must begin with identifying and removing physical barriers that hamper individuals’ ability to have full participation in society.

The change in Tuyet’s awareness of accessibility and social inclusion for PWD has brought about important benefits, firstly to her colleagues and work partners. Since she has always attempted to share and circulate the information and knowledge that she has acquired in the field, this has created ripple effects that encourage change among people she works with. Together they work to make changes that benefit PWD, the elderly and vulnerable groups whose specific needs for water and sanitation service are now brought into focus and addressed. For example, in her previous household visits, she would enquire about who was the income earner and decision maker. Upon completion of GESI training, her attention has been directed to the PWD, the elderly and other vulnerable groups as well as their special needs for hygienic latrine and water service as she understands that while they have different needs from other family members’, they are not normally listened to and have little or no voice in the decision making process. In a recent household visit, she made every attempt to talk to a woman with mental disability about her needs for an accessible toilet even though her other family members insisted that she should consult them instead because of her limited cognitive capacity. Through our conversation, her family eventually learned about the necessity of having an accessible hygienic toilet that meets her special needs (adjacent to the main house, bathing facilities included…). Tuyet also seeks opportunities to improve the awareness of GESI groups themselves. When learning that it is a common opinion among the senior groups that they are too old to afford an accessible hygienic toilet, she does her best to convince them such a toilet is for their safety and other health benefits. She also recommends the most affordable accessible structures and facilities that best accommodate their needs.

The augmentation of Tuyet’s expertise is reflected in the amount of knowledge gained during the GESI trainings, through PWD-focused document review and through working with PWD, colleagues and project partners (WU or CDC). She believes that only when she is fully equipped with insightful knowledge and sufficient information can she convince and have a desired influence on other people, thereby making transformative change collectively. It is the causal linkage between an individual’s change and other people’s transformation.

For Tuyet, the most valuable lesson learned and a new finding that came about from the process is the clearer perception of disability inclusion. Inclusion should go beyond just providing assistive devices and instruments for PWD to be able to fully function. It is more about changing the living environment, for example installing ramps and other accessible structures in public infrastructure. If we wish to make a change in their life and improve their social inclusion, it is imperative to perform systematic adjustments and modifications. Furthermore, social inclusion also means “putting ourselves in their shoes”, understanding their thoughts and feelings, recognizing “disability” as what occurs when their needs are not addressed in their physical and social environment. This necessitates changes in people without disabilities, specifically PWD’s family members, supporters including commune volunteers, project management unit… This whole process takes time and requires continuous enthusiasm of people involved and change agents.

Personally, the process of awareness improvement also offers an opportunity to look back and learn more about herself. Tuyet realizes that she has competencies that were not properly acknowledged and put in good use. Before engaged in trainings on GESI and PWD guidebook development, she found it hard to visualize accessibility in public facilities and felt apprehensive about taking on technical work such as drafting specifications of infrastructure facilities. However, once getting her hand on the work, she understands that when she applies herself and shows perseverance, determination and willingness to learn new things, no challenge would be too big to overcome.

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