“I’m a very curious person. When I was young, I gave all the adults a headache because I asked a lot of questions. They could never find the time to answer them all,” said Nguyen Thanh Vinh, who graduated with RMIT’s Bachelor of Communication (Professional Communication) degree last week.
“But the question I was always dying to know was, what is colour?”
Vinh wasn’t born blind; he was a sighted child for the first 18 months of his life.
Like most adults, he doesn’t remember much from that time. But he does recall his insatiable thirst to learn, to experience, to maintain his independence and to push the boundaries of society’s perceived limitations due to his disability.
“Even as a child, I always strived to keep my independence. I never wanted to stay at home. I found it so boring, so I crawled, used walls as guides, felt the textures of things, memorised landmarks and used sound clues to move around. I used to explore a lot,” Vinh said.
As Vinh grew older, he came up against many obstacles, including physical challenges and discrimination from others based on his disability, particularly from schools when he tried to find a university placement: “I wasn’t accepted [by some schools] because I was blind. It made me feel angry and frustrated. They didn’t care what my abilities were; as soon as they heard about the disability, they immediately thought of the barriers and inabilities,” he said.
But Vinh’s continuing desire to question the status quo, mixed with his unwavering determination to succeed, eventually led him to apply for RMIT University’s Opportunity Scholarship. It was the first scholarship of its kind in Vietnam, and was created to assist disadvantaged students like Vinh who may otherwise not be able to access a higher education at RMIT Vietnam.
It was during this application process that RMIT Vietnam Manager of Equitable Learning Service Carol Witney first met Vinh. She saw him as a “stand out application” because of his “intellect, grace, passion, motivation, gentleness and clear vision of what he wanted to do and why.”
After being offered the RMIT scholarship, Vinh chose to study Professional Communication. He wanted to learn how to utilise his skills and connections to create change in the world.
It didn’t take long for Ms Witney to realise that Vinh wasn’t going to be an ordinary student: “Vinh came to us very much aware of his own condition and how he would be able to be a voice for others,” she said.
“He was instrumental in moving RMIT forward to becoming an accessible university. It was a huge process, and his input was invaluable.”
But it wasn’t only accessibility at the University that Vinh had a direct impact on. During his time at RMIT Vietnam, he also delivered a TED talk to address disability discrimination, gave a presentation on the RMIT Access initiative to all major educators in Saigon, and consulted with the University on the creation of the Disability Resource Centre.
“Everybody has a right to education and for Vinh having the courage to stand up and be a voice for others – which isn’t an easy thing to do – this institution is fully accessible regardless of whether a student has a disability, medical condition or mental health condition. He’s opened up opportunities; he has actually made education better for everybody else,” Ms Witney said.
Since graduating this year, Vinh has accepted a communications role with IvyPrep Education, an institution that prepares Vietnamese students for study at Ivy League schools in America. His ultimate goal is to start a school for students with disabilities, to teach and help them without “losing their self-respect.”
“I often hear people talk about others with a disability in a pitiful way. I want to work at a school that embraces the opposite idea. If you think that you are weak, is it because you’re really weak, or is it because of others’ beliefs that influenced your own thinking about yourself?” Vinh wondered.
“Sometimes people read about my achievements and think that I’m superhuman. But I’m not...I have my flaws. I’m an empathetic person, but I also need empathy in my downtime as well. It’s all part of the journey.
“I made some progress at RMIT, and through my ability and good fortune, life will be easier for others who follow this path. But when you make progress, there’s always a starting point. And if you start now, in a couple of years’ time you will see parts of me in yourself. You won’t need to look at me anymore as someone you hope to be.”
Story: Lisa Humphries