When Phuong Nguyen heard about a Washington, D.C., protest against possible federal cuts to Medicaid services for people with disabilities, she knew she had to be there and speak out. Nguyen, 39, left Salt Lake City while preparing for finals at the University of Utah and flew to D.C. Her only real difficulty was making it from the hotel to the Capitol, since Nguyen began losing her sight at the age of 12 and has been legally blind most of her adult life. Luckily, she was guided by the wheelchair of another activist with advocacy group ADAPT as they took to the hill.
“I was just holding on to the back of her chair while walking up to the Capitol, then she told me: ‘Hey, Phuong, I plan to be arrested today. If you don’t or you are not ready, please find someone else.’ That pissed me off a little bit,” Nguyen recalls. “I made up my mind!”
On April 23, Nguyen joined roughly 200 activists with disabled-rights advocacy group ADAPT at the action and was one of more than 100 activists to be arrested for the protest. Inside the holding area, activists sang songs, chanted slogans and laughed and joked. Nguyen, while proud of her activism, mostly just wanted to get some sleep—her protest was more out of duty than to make a splash.
Despite her current spitfire idealism, Nguyen says civil disobedience wasn’t a part of her upbringing in Vietnam, where dissent, especially by women, was frowned upon.
“I’d been in [the U.S.] almost 18 years, a good citizen and outstanding student,” Nguyen says. “Then, that day, I was pounding my walking cane on the floor, shouting, ‘My Medicaid matters!’ Whatever I could do.”
Nguyen is currently going to school to become a teacher to help people with disabilities find their footing in the world. She knows firsthand the challenges involved for her students. In 1994, Nguyen came to the United States as a political refugee. She was 22 and had to learn Braille, then English. Nguyen feels she has now passed another test of U.S. citizenship: standing up for the rights of disabled Americans. These individuals are considered to be at risk should Republican proposals pass to give block-grant funding to individual states to fund Medicaid, the federal health-care program that covers low-income citizens.
Poverty and low-income advocate Bill Tibbitts, of the Crossroads Urban Center, says that in the election-year rhetoric over reforming Medicaid, it’s the plights of people like Nguyen that get overlooked. He says that in Utah it would not be hard to imagine the state simply distributing Medicaid vouchers to low-income Utahns to be used in the private market, if the state were put in charge of Medicaid. But market-oriented solutions like that fail to recognize that Medicaid users are often a very high-risk pool of individuals with special needs. Tibbitts says that such plans, especially those advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are political copouts.
“The Ryan plan is essentially [Republicans] saying we don’t have the courage to make the cuts ourselves, so we’re going to turn it over to the states and let them do it,” Tibbitts says.
Conservatives say it’s not the government’s place to care for the health of the poor, and Nguyen says self-reliance is a goal of hers, as well. Nguyen left Vietnam with her family when her father, a captain for the South Vietnamese army, was finally released from an internment camp. By the time she arrived in the States, her vision had been failing for some time. Color and shapes were mostly gone. Now, after having mastered Braille and English, Nguyen studies full time to get her teaching degree. She supports two children and cares for her 62-year-old mother, who has numerous ailments. Despite the difficulties, Nguyen wants Medicaid only as long as it helps her to support her family so she can finish school and find a teaching job.
“Most of us don’t want to depend on other people, but a lot of situations we cannot do anything to be better than just ask for help,” Nguyen says. “Does that mean we want to be like that forever? No, I want to be independent, and pretty soon, I’ll be proud of myself more if I could earn my living.”