Samnang Thy is a 9-year-old boy from Kampong Cham, Cambodia. Despite being born with orthopedic abnormalities on his right foot and both hands, some of the biggest challenges he has faced have not been his disability but the misconceptions from people around him.
Mon Chan Theng gave birth to Samnang a month early. The very first thing that she saw after waking from a c-section was Samnang’s tiny hands wrapped in bandages because the doctor had to separate his fingers from the tips. She also found out that Samnang’s right foot was abnormal.
“I felt very sad and did not know why this happened to me because I had seven kids without any problems,” said Mon Chan. “I once thought that it was his fate. I feel bad saying this, but I did not think he would live this long. Only after he survived the first six months did I start becoming more positive and seeing his strength to live and, possibly, his ability to live just like other kids.”
The extended-family’s reaction demonstrated how differently people view disabilities. “My side of the family has been supportive. Some sent us food to feed him others gave us money to support him,” said Mon Chan.
“But my husband’s side doesn’t understand why we want to take care of him,” she said. “They think we should have just ‘let him go’. In their view, kids like our son are ‘a waste’ because they think they just sit at home all day and do nothing. But we don’t care about what others think any more.”
When Samnang was 9 months old his right foot became infected and had to be amputated. Since then, he has worn an artificial leg.
He faces more physical challenges than other children his age, but he doesn’t let them hold him back. “I feel normal,” he said, smiling. “I make friends, get along well with them and play football with them.”
For Samnang, playing with his friends and neighbors isn’t difficult and his disability isn’t holding him back. He said he wanted to be a football player one day, while his mother pointed out that he kicks the ball with his artificial leg.
Samnang doesn’t see any barriers and plays and learns just like any other child. However, social-norms in Cambodia, like elsewhere, are creating barriers for children like Samnang and marginalizing them – barriers which needn’t be there.
Put the ability before the disability
Rosat Math has been working at the Physical Rehabilitation Center in Kampong Cham as head physiotherapist for 4 years. He says that one of the critical issues is that many people focus on the disabilities of people with physical problems rather than their abilities.
Rosat mentioned that the idea of karma is an additional burden for the disabled. Many Cambodians believe that people with disabilities, especially those born with them, committed sins in their previous lives and are paying for this in their current lives. Thus, a common perception is that nothing can be done for them.
“Phal Pro Yoch,” or reciprocity, is another common social belief which maintains that people must return favours. Because a majority of people with disabilities still live in extreme poverty in Cambodia, they are considered unable to follow the virtue of “Phal Pro Yoch”.
According to Rosat, one of the village chief’s roles in Cambodia is to support the village people in need. However, he found that requests from people with disabilities are often given least priority, as some village chiefs assume that these people cannot return favors.
Rosat also pointed out that disability can be expensive. Generally, people think that taking care of children and people with disabilities cost a lot. Some view them as an economic hardship. They believe that people with disabilities cannot support themselves or their family.
Another social perception that Rosat observed is that children with disabilities do not have good self-management or -control skills. A school near his center refused to accept a child with cerebral palsy, one of the most severe disabilities, despite his family being able to afford tuition. The school did not accept the child because they thought that the student would disturb other pupils and be unable to control his behavior.
Misconceptions and social norms like these are harm one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in society. UNICEF has continuously strived to change people’s negative attitudes towards disability.
UNICEF works with partners in Cambodia to raise awareness around disability. One such partnership is with Epic Arts. Epic Arts delivers public performances throughout the country to spread the message of inclusivity no matter whether or not an individual has a disability.
In addition, UNICEF Cambodia supports teacher training for inclusive education, advocates for inclusive school designs, and will this year support Cambodia’s first national diploma for special needs teachers.
In the right circumstances, children like Samnang could thrive and contribute to society. When the focus shifts to what these children can do rather than what they cannot, they will be able to reach their full potential.
These interviews were made possible with the dedicated support of Thinavuth Ek, Community Development Officer from UNICEF in Cambodia, and the generous support of Samnang, his mother and Rosat, whom we met at the Kampong Cham Physical Rehabilitation Center.