Sunday, December 12, 2010

People with Different Abilities

Fair Trade principles begin with creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers. Why this is important should be self-evident, but all too often people forget or don’t understand what it is to be disadvantaged. This term is quite applicable in a multitude of communities. It applies to socially marginalized ethnic minorities in distant lands where the serviceable roads and public transportation is a low priority; it applies to young women who were trafficked across borders to serve in a ravenous sex industry that dehumanizes their very existence and upon escape from their captors, they return to their communities only to face insurmountable discrimination as they try to reintegrate and reclaim what was stolen; and it can be those members of every community, rural and urban, who are disabled and viewed as a family burden forever dependent on the goodwill and charity of others.

Since Thursday we have been here in Hoi An, Vietnam to visit Reaching Out, a craft shop in this quaint little tourist town best known for its deep roots as a historic trading post along the coast. There are no disabilities here when it comes to craftsmanship, rather the craftswomen and men have “different” and readily recognizable abilities. I have known about Reaching Out since 2007 when I came to meet the founder and manager, Mr. Binh. Before I go into the story of Reaching Out and its founder, I want to share with you the experience of the shop itself. 
When you enter the store you immediately sense a very positive energy. Customers are greeted by courteous salesmen and women who welcome you to the shop, and don’t interfere with your browsing. Every item has a fixed price – a store policy that averts the usual haggling over a few cents which occurs in the vast majority of craft shops. 

This is how I met Dung, a young man with an inviting smile and gentle character. He is one of those with a “different ability.” His confidence is revealed in his composure and comfort in speaking English with multitudes of international customers that enter the shop on a daily basis. He is not only knowledgeable in the crafts and the process on how each one is made, but he will gladly introduce you to the person who made it in the workshop at the rear of the store.

All around the store I recognized the signage pointing out the business application of Fair Trade principles. Here workers are paid a fair wage which they earn by applying their trade; just ask any of them as they diligently and happily go about their labors. A further inquiry will lead you to discover that not only do they produce the high-quality crafts on the shelves, but they are directly involved in the design. Everyone I meet here exhibits a pride of ownership in their craftsmanship with a keen eye for detail. The fact that 80% of the staff and producers in Reaching Out are “disabled” is a side note. As they see themselves, this is an ordinary company going about their business in training and employing people with different abilities. 

What does Fair Trade mean to the craftswomen and men of Reaching Out?

I sat down with Dung on Saturday to ask him a series of questions on my long list of indicators related to Fair Trade principles. Rather than diving right in, I started with, “What makes Reaching Out different from other companies?” He replied with a smile, “I like working here. Almost everyone is disabled and there is an understanding amongst all of us here. I make a living wage and I have a long-term contract with insurance. I work eight hours per day, six days per week.”

When he mentioned a ‘living wage’, I perked up. Europeans generally understand this concept, but most people in the US have not heard of a living wage; much less understand the difference between that and a minimum wage. I asked him what it meant to him. He smiled and said, “I have an independent life! I have money to spend, to eat and drink. I can support my family and I can save money too.”  

Listening to him, I could sense a feeling of pride in his voice that comes with a sense of responsibility and belonging. He continued to explain, “To give you a local context, most people in other companies work ten-to-twelve hours per day and they only get one or two days off per month. Work outside is without a long-term contract and they do not offer insurance. Most companies only hire during the busy season, but in Reaching Out, I have steady work and I can plan ahead.” 

Until recently, disabled people have been discouraged from marriage or having a family of their own. Dung is dating another saleswoman here, Lan Anh, and the two of them are planning to marry in the near future. To observe them interacting is to savor a period of genuine innocence. Their ability to make a living wage has encouraged them to do what had been taboo a generation ago. In this way Reaching Out has been successful in their approach to integrate the disabled into society. 

There have been many advances in the past decade in Vietnam in regards to the integration of the disabled population. The group leader for the jewelry and pottery section, Luu Van Hoa, explained that the state has been pro-active in the integration of people with physical and mental disabilities. This recent development has put disabled people as a top priority in the eyes of the state. Hearing this I am relieved to see state efforts to include the disadvantaged, it gives me hope that governments can recognize the unique capabilities of all of their citizens.

Hoa added, “Before there was no place for the disabled to work. Now they can choose their work. Now disabled people can get training in centers and integrate into society. Before disabled people didn’t have many friends or a job. Now disabled and normal people are the same. We have jobs and friends; we can marry, have children and support a family.” 
On Sunday morning, I met Hoa and his wife, Luu Hong Tram with their 18-month old daughter. Tram also works as a saleswoman in Reaching Out and is amongst the 20% who do not have a disability. Her role started out in sales and her responsibilities increased as the shop grew. I asked her to explain her perception of Fair Trade and she quickly listed off several points that she has personally experienced:

1.    A fair wage
2.    No discrimination, no violence
3.    Protection of women’s rights
4.    Equality between men and women
5.    The more responsibilities and work you do, the more you are paid
6.    Create opportunities to access training programs
7.    A steady job and income for everyone

I have worked as a trainer for women’s rights and in the utilization of United Nations Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women (UN CEDAW) so I was interested in how Tram viewed the protection of her rights. “During my pregnancy I only had to work the day shift, so I could go home early and rest. When I had morning sickness I could take days off if I needed and still receive pay. The organization really understands women’s needs during pregnancy. After giving birth, I had 4 months paid maternity leave. From the 4th to 12th month, they let me work a split shift so I could go home at noon to feed the baby.” 

In the afternoon I was invited to Nguyen Duy Nguyen’s newly built home to visit him and his wife, Van. Building a new house is a strong indicator in Vietnam of holding a respectable position and having a reliable income. With room to grow they are planning to have a baby next year, and both hope it will be a girl. I was curious and asked why he wanted a girl, Nguyen beamed when he replied in English, "Because girls are lovely!" 

Van told me, “Like Tram, I will be supported during the pregnancy because we have health insurance. Normal people can take 4 months maternity leave, but as a disabled mother, I can take a 6 month paid maternity leave.” 

When I asked about the biggest changes in his life since working for Reaching Out, Nguyen proudly told me, “I started working here as a craftsman. Since that time I have been promoted to group leader of lacquer ware and handmade paper products. I have had a chance to take training courses in management skills. Now I have a deeper understanding of management.”

He went on to share about the personal impact it has had on him, “Because I have a stable income I feel more confident. I am more respected by people around me. Now I can help my family and the relationship with them is much warmer.” 

To this Van added, “When I go out I feel much more confident and happy because I am the same as everyone else now; I have my own job and steady income.”

Over the past few days I see that Reaching Out is empowering the disabled to lead normal, self-sufficient lives. However, the reality is much deeper. The impact the organization has had is in making them extraordinary. You can learn more about them on their website, or better yet, you can visit them directly in Hoi An. Their crafts are also available online and they ship internationally.


  1. Hi! Great read so far, you might want to think about spelling out your UN CEDAWs and other bevies of initials for the less well informed :)

  2. Hello JC,
    Thanks for your suggestion! I have made the change and even added a link for people to see the UN Convention itself! Did you know that this convention on the rights of women has more signatory nations than any other convention? Only two nations have not ratified this: the United States and Iran... odd bedfellows to say the least. Perhaps they have more in common than previously thought.