VietNamNet Bridge – In a 20-square-metre classroom, 15 students ranging in age from seven to 23 years are divided into two groups.


Storytime: Centre director Vu Thi Minh Huong tells a story to children in her house at 67 Pho Duc Chinh Street. 




One group, consisting of four members, is focused on learning how to count while the other on how to write. Xuan Tung, 23, is one of the four.

Suffering from brittle bone disease, a genetic disorder characterised by fragile bones, Tung finds it difficult to cope with the demands of personal independence. Simple acts of personal care such as washing one's face, dressing, bathing and going to the toilet rank in difficulty with learning the alphabet and basic counting skills.

Aware of his limitations, his teacher, Du Thi Huong, gives him more time to complete his tasks. She gives him five cardboard sheets with numbers 1 to 5 inscribed on each and asks him to read every number aloud. She has had to repeat the lessons slowly every year for the past few years, and over time, Tung was able to remember all the numbers.

In bringing Tung to a higher level of learning, Huong has trained him to count the number of toys he has received from her and to correlate them with the numbers 1 to 5.

Using the same method, Huong has taught him to identify the face cloth and the washbasin, take water from the tap and wash his face.

Slowly but surely, Tung who could do nothing but lie in bed all day learned how to care for himself and recognise and use a number of simple words and numbers.

Tung is not alone. As many as 60 children suffering from various mental illnesses such as Down's Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are learning how to become independent in their daily lives at the Phuc Tue Centre.

"Teaching children with disabilities requires us to discover and understand the character and abilities of each child, so we can help them overcome their impairment," Huong said.

To do so, she and other teachers at the centre have to adapt their teaching methods to the students' ability to learn.

In the case of Tung, who also suffers from weak muscles resulting from brittle bone disease, Huong came up with the idea of asking him to use his fingers to fasten small aluminium clothespins onto the edge of an empty candy box to strengthen his hands.

Asked about teachers' methods for students with weak memories, Huong said only the teachers' patience and devotion could help students remember their lessons.

Tran Thanh Ha, a former primary school teacher, said teaching mentally challenged students was a totally different experience from that of teaching able-bodied students.

"I was shocked at first. Most children come to the Phuc Tue Centre only after they are refused entry into public schools. To adjust to their learning curve, we have to create our own syllabus and keep changing it all the time," Ha remarked.

Ton Nu Nhu Tinh, who has been on the job for more than 10 years, said she has experienced being suddenly slapped in the face several times by her students while she was playing with them.

Tinh also revealed that some pupils who did not want to eat would often spit out their food on her.

"It is a sense of compassion and love for the students, who are unaware of (the impact of) their behaviour that has enabled the teachers to persist and not to turn their backs on them," Tinh explained in a soft voice.

Happiness follows from an attitude of understanding--the basis of the Phuc Tue Centre's vision to bring joy to the lives of intellectually disabled children.

Phuc Tue is actually the religious name of the father of Vu Thi Minh Huong, the centre's director, who had abandoned a life of fame and fortune to become a Buddhist monk.

Good learning environment

Influenced by her father's life-changing decision, Minh Huong came up with the idea of setting up a private school for children with intellectual disabilities upon her retirement from the Ha Noi Education and Training Department in 1996.

"There was only one State-owned special school for mentally disabled children at that time. The scarcity of such schools got me to thinking that children with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable and receive little care when, in fact, they have every right to go to school like able-bodied children. This, along with the despair of many parents, prompted me to open the centre," Huong stated.

Initially located at her small private home of only 20sq.m, the centre cared for 20 children when it first opened.

But her home was too small to serve as a classroom, playground, and dwelling place for the children. This prompted her, in 2001, to take them to a nearby junior high school, where they could play and take a nap after the students had gone home.

Perceiving her difficulties, the school authorities allowed Minh Huong and her pupils to use the vacant classrooms, situated in a communal house at 66 Pho Duc Chinh Street in Ha Noi.

Today, the Phuc Tue Centre shares living space with some residential homes.

It has three rooms with barely any study facilities other than a few desks and cabinets for storing educational toys and the students' belongings.

Teachers and students also had to save water to ensure that there would be enough for cooking.

"I want to enhance the quality of education at the centre, but a lack of funds is preventing me from buying the needed equipment. Several times, I planned to raise tuition fees to improve the teachers' living standards, but my plan has been stymied each time by the difficulties that many of the parents of my students are encountering," Huong said.

The centre's tuition fee rates are quite low compared with those of other centres created for the same purpose.

Children with autism have to pay VND1.1 million (US$52) per month while those with other mental disabilities are charged VND800,000 ($38). This does not include food expenses, estimated at VND16,000 ($0.7) per day.

"Many parents will not be able to enroll their children in this school if we raise the fees," Minh Huong noted.

An estimated 25 of 60 children enrolled at the centre get tuition discounts because their families are poor. Some pay less than half while others pay only two-thirds of the fees.

"The total amount of tuition fees earned by the school is barely enough to pay for the salaries and social insurance of teachers," the centre's director said.

The most experienced teacher, with more than 10 years of seniority at the centre, gets more than VND4 million ($190) per month while the rest receive from VND2 million ($95) to VND3 million ($142).

"I know their salaries are barely enough to make ends meet, and this is hardly enough compensation for hardships experienced while caring for ‘naughty' children," said Vu Thi Oanh, the mother of a 10-year-old boy suffering from Down's Syndrome.

"My son is exposed to a good learning environment here. I cannot afford to look after him by myself, year after year," Oanh added.