On a practical level, those working with children with disabilities in Vietnam and the Lao PDR do not make a distinction between those who are Agent Orange-affected and those whose condition is related to other causes. A child in need is a child in need, no matter what caused the condition.
However, complicating efforts to assist children and youths with disabilities in Vietnam and in the Lao PDR is the small number of trained physical therapists and specialized education teachers. In addition, there are only a handful of occupational therapists and speech pathologists. Even fewer in Laos. Moreover, the vast majority of children with disabilities in Vietnam and Laos live in rural areas where access to medical, rehabilitative, education and social services is even more limited.
Many non-governmental organizations are working with their government counterparts to ensure that those children with disabilities who are able to go to school receive the adaptive equipment or extra support services they need. Other organizations are working to reduce the stigma faced by children with disabilities and ensuring that the rights of children with disabilities are upheld. These programs for the vast majority of children with disabilities who are not affected by Agent Orange are vital. They need to be expanded to rural areas of the country and they need more resources. However, providing services to children with only one disability or with less severe disabilities is much easier to do, assuming the human and financial resources are available.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the programs in Vietnam for children with disabilities have left out those children who are classified as being affected by Agent Orange. The situation is the same in the Lao PDR where there is not even a full understanding about how many children may have disabilities that may be related to Agent Orange/Dioxin. Since resources are limited, a decision is often made to assist those children with disabilities whose needs can be met most efficiently, who are more likely to be able to attend school or received vocational education and eventually become self-sufficient. Additional resources are needed to provide medical care and social services for those children with disabilities who will unfortunately never be able to attend school or hold a job. Parents overwhelmingly want to care for their severely disabled children at home, though for a small percentage of these children, often now adults themselves, full time care facilities are needed as the parents die or are no longer able to care for their children.
For many children believed to be affected by Agent Orange, it is already too late for medical or educational intervention. For the most part, providing financial assistance to these families, who are often impoverished and living in substandard housing, is about all that can be done. Programs that provide respite care and day care services so that parents are able to work, go to the market or get a much needed break from the 24/7/365 care duties are also in great need.
What Needs To Be Done
However, not all is hopeless; many children and youths with disabilities in Vietnam have already overcome huge obstacles to reach their full potentials and to fight stigmas in order to integrate into their local communities. But much more needs to be done to restore dignity and hope for the thousands of children and young adults with disabilities and their families. There are some very good examples elsewhere on this site of what can be done given the right financial and human resources, however these programs need to be expanded to reach more people, particularly those who live far from city centers where many of them are located.
Some of the priorities to address the needs of people with disabilities in Vietnam, including those believed to be affected by Agent Orange, are the following:
- Developing and conducting a nationwide survey of people with disabilities and creating a birth defects registry to better determine those in need of services and support.
- Improving the quality and quantity of occupational and rehabilitation therapists, speech pathologists, developmental specialists and mental health practitioners.
- Improving the ability of Vietnamese public health professionals to diagnose disabilities and to recommend treatment options, especially for children 0–3 to ensure early identification and intervention.
- Building rehabilitation facilities and respite day care centers in areas with high rates of people with disabilities.
- Strengthening and expanding inclusive education, specialized education and vocational training programs for children and youths with disabilities
- Improving antenatal care and providing testing and counseling as necessary for individuals on genetic effects of dioxin exposure and for others who have a high risk of reproductive abnormalities
- Assuring that all poor households with people with disabilities or family members suffering from illnesses related to dioxin have access to medical care, social support programs and education services.
- Developing peer support programs for children with disabilities as well as support programs for their parents.
- Ensuring that children and youths with disabilities are provided the support and tools they need to enable them to reach their full potential and to integrate into their communities.
Painting by: Vu Giang Huong
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