“Even if a mountain is high, there is always a way to reach the top — and although the way might be full of danger, there is always a way for someone to get through it. (Vietnamese Proverb)”

The proverb above may be the best one to describe Nguyen Hong Ha — a Vietnamese woman, a human rights activist. When her mother learned Hong Hahn had polio, she knew that life would become difficult. “It was the most serious case,” Ha’s mother said. It resulted in her using a wheelchair now.

Going to school was always a challenge for her because of the school’s inaccessibility for wheelchair users. The same is also true for the college complex she went to. However, despite many difficulties, she experienced great acceptance from her classmates and teachers. Surrounded by such support, at school and home, Ha managed to get good education and because she was treated with no discrimination, she felt the same as any other girls at her age. Love, affection, helping each other, and responsibility are the inner qualities she learned from her family, while from school she learned how to fight for the human rights of persons with disabilities.

The first real barrier she encountered related to her disability was when she was about to enroll in a university. Universities in Vietnam at that time had a policy not to allow a disabled student to be accepted. This, however, did not diminish her determination. Ha successfully graduated from Hanoi University with a very good grade. After this success, she became even more motivated to be employed in a good job, so that she would be able to contribute to her family, friends, and the nation. But this dream was instantly challenged as she encountered another barrier to deal with right after graduation. Her job applications were being refused by numerous employers on the basis of her disability. The employers did not understand why a disabled person should be given the job that other non-disabled persons were queuing for. They also found it difficult to arrange the assistance necessary to help her do her daily work.

Despite these experiences, Ha always strives to see the brighter side of things. In spite of those rejections, she decided to walk away from the disappointment and take an evening English class. She decided to become an English teacher. She was hoping that there would be an organization working on disability issues in Vietnam that would be interested to hire her.

1996 was a turning point in Ha’s life when she was inspired by the aims of the first self-help group of people with disabilities in Vietnam, the Bright Future Group of People with Disabilities (BF group), after she met the founders of the group. At the time, she learned that one of the aims of BF group was to set up a model of an organization of persons with disabilities, where they run programs/projects supporting persons with disabilities to claim their rights and promote inclusive policies, focusing on accessibility in building and transportation. She decided to join BF group as a secretary and was sent to participate in several short-term leadership trainings in the USA. Her passionate spirit was freed. Her international voyage continued by learning and strengthening her leadership skills, focusing on advocacy and lobbying to promote the rights of persons with disabilities with the government in Thailand and Sweden. She also had the opportunity to become Program Coordinator at the Disability Forum, an international NGO network in Vietnam and to serve as project manager for projects on accessibility for persons with disabilities in schools and transportation, where she worked closely with government agencies and ministries.

Currently, Ha is active in several local organizations. She serves as the Chairwoman of Bright Future, a project director at the Project of Establishment and Development of Hanoi Independent Living Center, a committee member of DP Hanoi, and a committee member of Hanoi Club of Women Disabilities. Regionally, Ha also serves as a trainer for the Leadership Training of DPI AP, as a representative at the ADF, and as an expert for the ASEAN Institute of Disability and Public Policy (IDPP)’s Expert Group. Internationally, she serves as a committee member of the International NGO Disability Working Group.

Vietnam, especially, and ASEAN more broadly should be proud to have her as one of the outstanding activist fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities. Her contribution and thoughts continually inspire and help many persons with disabilities locally and internationally. Her motto, “Where there is will, there is a way,” symbolizes her journey in advocating the right of persons with disabilities. Her story about equality in life is a true inspiration.

Nguyen Hong Ha was interviewed by Hera Oktaviani.