Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups of children, experiencing widespread violations of their rights. This marginalization doesn’t come about because of their disability, but often because of a lack of understanding and knowledge, a fear of difference and negative cultural views from those around them. Poverty and remoteness can also compound the problems.
If we invest in the futures of those with disabilities, their well-being improves and so do the prospects of their families. Importantly, society also benefits when people are able to use their human capital to full potential.
While recently visiting Cambodia, I got a taste of the challenges people with disabilities face. To better understand some factors that influence people’s attitudes and behaviors towards disability in Cambodia, I met with Hach, a 25-year-old blind man who is currently studying at a local university, and Navy who is an 11th-grader with a low vision. Both are from Kampong Cham, a two-hour drive from Phnom Penh.
Hach’s story: “People do not understand our abilities”
When Hach first arrived at the Krousar Thmey, a school for the blind and deaf in Kampong Cham, he was only 11 years old. Fourteen years later he is now working to finish his degree in English literature in order to become an English translator. However, he is worried about getting work – people with disabilities are much less likely to get jobs in Cambodia.
Hach told me that many people do not believe that people with disabilities have potential. “I often find job announcements very generic and written without thinking about disabled people,” he said. “It’s like we are not wanted in most workplaces. Companies do not believe in our capacity and abilities. Many make assumptions that we do not or cannot have self-management skills and need assistance all the time.”
He then went on to tell me how assumptions are hindering opportunities. “People expect our performances to be poor because they think we have very limited capacity compared to those without disabilities. People don’t understand our abilities.”
According to Hach, a bigger problem is that society views people with disabilities as “worthless” just because many of them cannot go to the market or school by themselves, or support their families economically.
When he was a little boy, he often felt that his neighbors treated him badly, but he never understood why. However, their attitudes changed after they saw him mastering different skills at school and living independently, just like them.
Despite facing numerous challenges and discrimination, he doesn’t blame people. Disability is still an emerging issue in Cambodia and more time is needed to improve the situation he says.
He told me he believed that the negative mindset towards disability in Cambodia will change one day, “but only if people stop presuming what we can’t do and give us an equal opportunity to show what we can do.”
Navy’s story: “Disabled people can help each other too”
Navy, 24, is visually impaired and has been studying at the Krousar Themy for 10 years. She recalled that she was very excited to join the school because she could not enroll in her village school, which was unable to provide braille and other assistive devices for her.
Navy starts her day early. In the morning, she spends four hours learning different life skills. She then spends her afternoon with her non-disabled classmates at a state-run village school.
Her class currently has five disabled students, including herself. As soon as I learned that her age and grade did not match, I became curious about what it would be like to study with younger classmates, especially as a person with a disability.
“By the time I enrolled in grade 3 at my [state] school, I was already 16 years old. I did not like it,” she told me. “I felt embarrassed because of the huge age gap [8 years]. I often felt left out because of my age and disability. I had very few friends and some of the kids weren’t nice to be. But I thought it was still better to go to school.”
I asked her if she ever felt that her disability was a barrier to happiness, making new friends, studying and living a normal life. Her answer was short and clear: “Disability should not matter.”
However, she told me that a majority of people still see disability only as a challenge and have low expectations of them.
Navy also saw that people with disabilities have limited opportunities and resources to learn, interact with others and explore their potential. She said that she thinks there should be more opportunities and resources to support people with disabilities. Without such support, their learning and work performance will be underdeveloped.
In her village school, she told me that she didn’t get special attention from teachers and, sitting at the back of the class, needed class mates to help her read what was written on the board. This made it difficult for her to interact and learn like the other students.
Although Navy believed that people with disabilities may need some level of support, it is not right to generalize that disabled people are dependent. “We may need some help,” she told me, “but disabled people can help each other, too.”
“For example, with my low vision, it is not always easy to go to school, so my friend with a similar disability and I hold each other and walk together to school. We are just fine.”
The stories of Hach and Navy have taught me some valuable lessons. First, indifferent and discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities conveys a belief that they are incapable of being productive members of society. These negative attitudes mean that disabled people often hold low-skilled jobs.
Second, to help people better understand both the disability and abilities of disabled people, additional learning opportunities should be available. Also, people with disabilities have the right to be treated as equals – people need to focus on the abilities and skills of disabled people rather than what they cannot do.
Hach and Navy’s determination to achieve in the face of the many barriers in front of them should act as a testament to how, given the right support and opportunities, people with disabilities can become big contributors to society.
Hyunjeong Lee is Education Consultant at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office.
These interviews were made possible with the dedicated support of Thinavuth Ek, Community Development Officer from UNICEF in Cambodia, and the generous support of Hach Cham and Navy Hoeum, whom we met at the Krousar Thmey.