Disability finds a voice

By Darlene Hill,2014-05-13 16:55
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Disability finds a voice

    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

    ideas themselves.”

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 (, “by organisations for rather

    than of disabled people”, but attitudes are shifting – and it is disabled people themselves who will now maintain the pressure.


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