KU graduate is pioneering advocate for people with disabilities in Vietnam

Yen Vo, right, stands next to her former Kansas University adviser, Professor Glen White. Vo, who graduated with a master's degree in 2004, has been a leader in advocating for rights of people with disabilities in Vietnam.

As she prepared to graduate from Kansas University with her master’s degree in 2004, Yen Vo told the Journal-World she planned to work for a U.S.-based aid agency for people with disabilities in Vietnam.

It didn’t take her long to set a new course.

She looked around and realized that groups serving Vietnamese people with disabilities provided money, housing or even medical treatment. But none of them offered education, job training or, as Vo puts it, “a chance at life.”

“So we did something different,” said Vo, 47.

Vo decided to start her own organization to do those things. Nine years later, she’s been successful enough that the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program invited her to New York City this week as one of four alumni, out of more than 4,300, to take part in a celebration of the 10-year program’s completion.

For Vo, though, what she and others have done through her group, Disability Resource and Capacity Development, is not nearly enough.

“Many newspapers call me this successful person, but I think, not successful yet,” Vo said.

Vo, who also visited Lawrence this weekend as part of her U.S. trip, came to KU in 2001 as part of the Ford fellowship program’s first class. The program, designed to last 10 years, has spent $420 million on graduate study for about 4,300 students from around the world. The aim was to help students from marginalized groups — ethnic minorities, poor rural communities, people with disabilities — get an education and return home to become an advocate for people sorely in need of one, according to Joan Dassin, the program’s executive director.

Perhaps no one has fulfilled that hope more than Vo, Dassin said.

“For us, she became a kind of poster child for the program,” she said.

By Dec. 3, 2005, the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Vo had founded her center, called DRD for short.

Back then, it consisted of Vo, whose legs were damaged by childhood polio and who uses a wheelchair to get around, and three other staff members, each of whom also had a disability. They worked out of a tiny office on a university campus in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Now the group has expanded out into the city, opening a clubhouse where young people can gather and watch musical performances. Vo and others helped lobby for a new comprehensive disability law in Vietnam, passed in 2011.

The group provides scholarships, job training and networking for people with disabilities, who until now had next to no chance to land a job in Vietnam. (Vo herself was turned down for numerous jobs after graduating from college.) After two years, the group expanded outside of Ho Chi Minh City, training leaders to go work in other provinces of the country. It provides coaching for employers, teaching them how to provide accessibility for workers with disabilities.

“She’s really had an impact across a lot of different spheres,” said Glen White, a professor of applied behavioral science at KU who served as Vo’s adviser when she studied there. White visited her in Vietnam in 2010.

A research project that Vo began at KU, about training college students with disabilities to advocate for accessibility, still continues, and it’s spun off other projects since. In addition to being a devoted worker, White said, Vo is a talented researcher.

“She’s got a vision, a vision for a better society,” White said, “and then a passion to really make it work.”

Sometimes, Vo says, the work is one small step at a time. Two years ago, when she heard that Vietnam planned to purchase new buses for Ho Chi Minh City, DRD circulated a petition to ask that some of them be made accessible for people with disabilities.

Vo’s group got its wish — in the form of two new accessible buses, for a city with more than 6 million people. But, she said, that still qualified as a victory.

“It’s still not easy,” Vo said. “The laws and the policies are available, but the implementation is a big challenge.”

She says she’s pleased with the work she and others have done, but her hopes are far bigger. She’d like DRD to own its own space — rent on its clubhouse in the city is wildly expensive. She wants an entire complex, with multiple buildings, so the group can open a fully functional institute, where people with disabilities can train or get an education. The group is launching a fundraising effort for that purpose, and sometime this summer it will open an English-language website, one4change.org, where people can make donations.

Then, she wants to expand out of the city, providing training to all of Vietnam online. And then, she hopes, maybe the program could reach beyond just people with disabilities, providing online education for young people in poor, remote areas of the country, regardless of their physical state.

Her goals are ambitious. But people who know Vo say she’s a tireless worker.

“It’s just incredible,” said David Hann, a retired worker at the KU Center for Research who hosted Vo in Lawrence this weekend with his wife. “I don’t think I can have an appreciation about how much her heart and her body and mind she puts into this.”

In the meantime, Vo said, she sees herself as just a few steps along on a lengthy path. Though accurate data is tough to come by, government statistics still suggest only about 1 out of every 1,000 people with disabilities in Vietnam is able to finish college.

“This is my dream,” Vo said. “So I think that I still have a long way to go.”