University of Nevada, Reno economics professor Robert Metts recently returned from a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Tell me why you went.
I went working for an NGO [non-government organization] in Vietnam that has a project to incorporate disability issues into their hunger-eradication and poverty-reduction program and to help them develop a five-year national action plan on disabilities. This one was funded by USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development].
Tell me your impressions.
It was beautiful. It’s a city of, I think, around four million, and they apparently have two million motorbikes in the town, so that tells you something about the character. It’s a big, beautiful, old, Asian city that’s a little long in the tooth but incredibly clean and safe and really, really exotic and beautiful.
How much of the city did you get to see?
Not much. We worked in the central area every day, and we were never out walking more than about three hours, so that gives you some indication of how far we went, and we never got in a vehicle other than to go back to the airport.
How were you received?
Really, really well—very nice people, really cooperative and gracious. I loved them. And I like doing this kind of work because you’re not a tourist. You go there, and you have to organize things with the local people, so you get to really meet a lot of people and sort of get an idea of how they think, how they operate. This was a very cooperative culture.
How did your work go?
It’s exciting. Their culture is one that’s very family-oriented and very caring, and that translated to an approach to disabilities that was very protective and where they took care of people with disabilities. And people with disabilities want to be given opportunities to be normal and to be part of mainstream society. This was a very exciting trip because the model that I created for the World Bank … on how national governments should address disability issues, that made the case for the disabled people there that incorporating them into mainstream society and giving them access to employment and economic opportunities was the best way to care for them.
U.S. laws that were originally written to protect women during the ‘20s later came to be seen as onerous.
Yes, that is exactly what’s going on—the parallel to the women’s movement and its interaction with existing policies. This is very parallel to the disability circumstances. The Economic Approach to Disability model gave the disabled people that were involved in these meetings, it gave them a framework to point out that kind of conflict—”This policy appears to care for us, but what it really does is socially isolate us and it’s actually based on unnecessarily limited expectations of our capabilities.”
I would think it is hard to change, because you’re describing this as a cultural view.
One thing that gives countries that are coming out of poverty an advantage in dealing with disability in a way that’s both economically sound and treats disabled people with more respect is that these countries can’t really afford the kind of giant systems and socially isolating institutions that were developed in the West out of a similarly hopeless and paternalistic attitude in the ‘20s, ‘30, ‘40s and ‘50s. So to make a case for empowering people with disabilities, it tends to get farther in poor countries even if there are strongly held preconceived notions.
Do you want to go back?
I’d love to go back … and do what my wife and I like to do when we work on development projects, to then spend a month in the country and go see what it’s about.