Disability finds a voice
By Daniel Nelson
Disabled people tend to be ignored, shunted aside and seen as passive recipients of aid rather than as people making their own decisions.
But in Cambodia, change may be on the way.
“Disability is a hidden issue”, says Steve Harknett, who works with Disability Development Services Pursat (DDSP), “partly because people with disabilities are scattered throughout communities and rarely have chance to identify with one another, and also because many of them stay at home because of mobility problems. But it is becoming visible.”
One sign of progress is that a recent workshop in Phnom Penh was addressed by five disabled people – people who in the past probably wouldn‟t have been asked to give
presentations and in any case would have lacked the confidence to do so.
The five include a double amputee, a person with a mental handicap and a paraplegic.
Yet only two years ago when DDSP conducted research on community development in three villages in Pursat, western Cambodia, as part of a British aid programme, it had to overcome huge barriers – mental and physical - to enable the disabled members
of its own team to participate.
The villages could be reached only by motorbike, and the paraplegic on the team had problems getting on and off the vehicle. She also found getting to wells extremely awkward, and could not use conventional latrines - her own house has a latrine fitted with a ramp and hand-rails. Another team member, a double amputee, experienced a similar problem: he was embarrassed about removing his prosthetic legs in strangers‟ homes, which he needed to do for bathing.
A third member, with learning difficulties, encountered hostility from villagers – not
surprising, given that even her own family and village previously considered her useless.
Meas Sokha, a community worker with DDSP who also participated in the research, recalls, “At the beginning of the research, villagers didn‟t give any value to the disabled team. They called them discriminatory names like „akwen‟ (lame) and „lop‟
(crazy), and they thought they had no ability and certainly couldn‟t teach or show them anything.
So successful was the experiment, however, that DDSP has subsequently invited
disabled people to join in other village studies. “Disabled people in the research team
are the same as disabled people in the villages,” Meas Sokha points out, “and they can
understand their problems and behaviour - for example, their depression or their
apparent lack of innovative ideas. Disabled people in the village feel worthless, but
when other disabled people do the research they feel more able and come up with
Harknett points out that the Pursat exercise was probably the first research project of
any kind in Cambodia to include someone with learning difficulties in the team. She
was illiterate, had a poor memory and little self-confidence. Yet during the fieldwork
she proved helpful in sessions with the villagers, showed a skill in drawing pictures to
illustrate data; contributed a lot to team-building; and was an enormous help to the
only other woman on the team, the paraplegic, whose contribution would otherwise
have been severely curtailed.
For DDSP, the village research project marked the start of a process of staff seeing
disabled people less as “clients” and more as partners in development, though
Harknett admits that “empowering illiterate, uneducated people is tough and without
constant reminding that this is what we should be doing, staff tend to take short cuts
or 'paths of least resistance' - dealing with non-disabled people instead of disabled
people, or dealing with the most able and educated disabled people and excluding
women, children and people with mental health or other awkward problems.”
Letting uneducated, inexperienced disabled people take more control is not just a
personal problem for NGO staff: they may fear that the project will be deemed slow
and inefficient, and that funds will be cut as a result. Their fears may well be justified
– donors are increasingly results-oriented and can forsake emphasis on how results are
obtained (who participated, how long it takes) in order to get the required output.
DDSP and some other Cambodian ngos are also learning that their activities do not
have to be solely for the benefit of disabled people, “but disabled people must benefit and, where possible, disabled people must lead”, says Harknett.
“If we organise a literacy class, or a mat-weaving class, anyone can join as long as
some disabled people participate. And disabled people also benefit as they can tell the
village that they were the ones who brought the initiative to the village.”
DDSP‟s water and sanitation project, for example, enables disabled people to plan and
organise wells and ponds that benefit the whole community.
For many disabled people, though, the biggest impact is learning that they have rights
and introducing them to other people with disabilities. After DDSP organised
celebrations to mark International Day of Disabled Persons, one man told of his
surprise that Cambodia was not the only country to have people with disabilities and
said this discovery that he was not alone gave him motivation to want to continue
Another paraplegic told an evaluation team earlier this year that the celebrations were
“a turning point in my life”, and that the message of disabled rights had encouraged
her to leave her house in her wheelchair, first to go to market, then to the temple and
finally to enrol at school.
Now the aim is to make the breakthrough national. DDSP is starting to work with the
Cambodian Disabled People‟s Organisation (CDPO), a new, countrywide ngo. DDSP
plans to send disabled delegates from Pursat to Phnom Penh to join in CDPO
discussions as the country starts the process of building a national disabled people‟s movement.
“Although the new body aims to represent disabled people throughout the country,”
says Harknett, “for geographic and logistical reasons it tends to represent urban,
better-off disabled people from in and around the capital. We feel it is important that
CDPO hears the voices of disabled people living in remote villages.” Cambodia‟s disability sector may still be dominated, as Harknett noted in a recent
report for the UK Department for International Development‟s Disability Knowledge and Research Programme (http://www.disabilitykar.net), “by organisations for rather
than of disabled people”, but attitudes are shifting – and it is disabled people themselves who will now maintain the pressure.