Disabling karma: Reflections on Buddhism, disability and charitable drive-bys

Waiting outside the UNICEF office in Phnom Penh for my tuk tuk, an older woman sidles up to me and pushes 1,000 riel (around 25 cents) into my hand. This is what I have begun to colloquially call a charity drive-by. The first few times I chased after the predominantly elderly women to say, “thank you but please take the money back.” But, after it happened several times and experiencing the Cambodian elderly as absurdly quick, I accepted their charity with discomfort.

I will be honest, this is not the first time I’ve received money on the street. In the dark days of finishing my thesis at university, when I was unintentionally trying out dreadlocks and wore a uniform of oversized t-shirts and sweatpants, a man shoved money into my much-needed espresso outside of a Starbucks as I waited for a friend. Yet, within the Cambodian context, I expected my foreignness to exempt me from being seen as requiring charity.

The element however that seemingly erases my foreignness, my race, and all assumptions of economic affluence, is that I use a wheelchair.

Cambodia is unique in this respect. Working in Nepal I had a gang of children follow me, or more accurately ride on me, to work and ask for money periodically. In Afghanistan, I was consistently asked for money from impoverished widowed women. Morocco, Algeria, Peru, Bolivia, Jordan, Lebanon, Tibet, and New Jersey were all similar.

My daily experiences with well-meaning elderly women reflects to a greater degree my observations surrounding the interaction between disability and Buddhism in Cambodia. The Buddhist notion of karma has a profound effect upon how Cambodians perceive disability. In Theravada Buddhism, having a disability, like being a woman, places you at a lower level of enlightenment, a result of karma from a past life. For persons with disabilities this translates to being objects of pity and charity, and for some Cambodians with disabilities it translates to an acceptance that we should suffer to build better karma for the next lifetime.

A young woman living next to my hotel and who has a physical disability shared with me as we drank way too many coconuts, “I have accepted that I am disabled because of my karma. And so I am to suffer.”

This notion is highly egregious to my American disability rights sensibilities, where not only am I proud to have a disability, but I believe that the difficulties and the prejudices I face are not inherently due to my disability but rather a society that is not accessible. The notion that I should accept suffering in the hopes of not having a disability in my next lifetime is fascinating within a space of cross-cultural exchange, however something I cannot personally relate to.

A young woman working at a table with a man beside her.
UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Thinavuth EkMegan taking part in a session on making workshops inclusive in Kampong Cham province.

In my brief stay in Cambodia, I have been lucky enough to work on a disability rights project with UNICEF and have come into contact with powerful disability rights activists in Phnom Penh. A social based model of disability has been promoted here through international NGOs and through other international agencies with relative success, asserting that social barriers and prejudices disable individuals to a far greater degree than their impairment. In line with this, the Cambodian Government passed a national disability law which promotes and protects the civil rights of Cambodians with disabilities and is now working on effective ways to implement it. While progress is slow, more children with disabilities are entering schools, more persons with disabilities are able to use toilets in rural regions, more individuals with disabilities can access existing clean water supplies, and more women with disabilities are accessing healthcare.

Yet, in the afterglow the powerful workshops, national strategic plans and inspirational speeches, it appears that for some Cambodians with disabilities there remains a deep-seated commitment to suffering and accepting an inequitable society. However much this may be alien to me, I have learned in my years abroad that inequity is not inherently negative and often my notions of what persons with disabilities need are misguided.

For the next few months, I will try to dodge the charity drive-bys, but if they catch me unaware, I will accept it with the graciousness it comes from.


Megan is a volunteer with UNICEF’s Local Governance for Child Rights program where she works with the UNICEF team to support the inclusion of persons with disabilities within all aspects of Cambodian society. As a Rotary Peace Fellow she is completing a Masters in Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Queensland Australia. As a professional Megan has worked with the disability rights organization Mobility International USA as an expert in cross-disability inclusion. Most recently Megan has worked extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan with women with disabilities and landmine survivors.

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