Agent Orange victim isn't afraid to dream big

Vietnamese educator born with health defects encourages the Hong Kong government to let disabled children develop their full potential

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 7:14am

"Do not fear discrimination," says Nguyen Sgoc Plniong, who breathes with just half a lung and stands only as tall as a three-year-old. He is one of an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese born with health defects because of exposure to a chemical known as Agent Orange.

The toxic mixture was widely used by the US military during the Vietnam war. In the 1960s and 70s, the US military sprayed 20 million gallons of it on Vietnam to deforest rural areas that guerrilla fighters used as cover. Its use had devastating effects on the local population.

Plniong, 33, and his sister were left disfigured and suffering from severe health problems.

"I hope children in Hong Kong with disabilities will not be confined by their conditions. They should know that even people like us can dream big and achieve something," the teacher told the South China Morning Post in an interview in Da Nang, central Vietnam, where Unicef released its 2013 State of World's Children report on Thursday.

One-third of the world's countries have failed to ratify a UN human rights convention to protect children, the report said. The latest data found that disabled children are almost four times more likely to be subject to violence or abuse than their able-bodies counterparts.

"It's hard to avoid discrimination," Plniong said. At just 95cm tall, he can barely touch the knee of a grown person. After battling health problems throughout his youth, his bones are brittle, his legs too weak to carry him on long walks, and he often has difficulty breathing. But he says he's lucky to be able to walk on his own.

"People stared at me all the time. Kids teased me for being so small. It upset me. But I've overcome these feelings and learned to think positively," he said.

In primary school, he took classes with children without disabilities, but could not make it to class as easily as the others. "The transport was bad. I was tiny and my legs were weak. There were no facilities for me to get to school," he said.

Plniong teaches in a school dedicated to caring for children who are victims of Agent Orange.

He hopes the Hong Kong government, which has more resources than his own country's, will give disabled children better chances to integrate into society.

"All children should be given the opportunity to develop their full potential," he said.

Unicef executive director Anthony Lake said the Hong Kong government should improve classroom inclusiveness to integrate youngsters with disabilities into mainstream schools.

The organisation will submit its report to governments - including Hong Kong's and the mainland's - urging better implementation of policies to protect disabled children.

Despite everything he has been through, Plniong remains optimistic. "I still have a dream," he said. "I want to be able to contribute to society."