Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Youth role models in Cambodia inspire children with disabilities to say “I can!”

By Sam Waller

Thuo, 29, leading a session at the “I Can!” workshop in Phnom Penh
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

Twenty-nine year old Thuo knows what it’s like to feel nervous and shy as a result of disability. Just a few years ago she spent most of her days at home, lacking in confidence because she has a disability caused by polio that affects one of her arms.

Two years ago, Thuo joined the inclusive arts course at Kampot-based organization Epic Arts and started to get her confidence back. She studied modules including drama, creative movement, music and visual arts, plus lessons in Khmer and English literacy. Along the way she also gained skills in management, team leadership and problem solving.

Young leader

Today Thuo is at Phum Russei Primary School in Phnom Penh, leading a creative workshop for children with disabilities. The workshop aims to empower the children and help them realize all of the things they are capable of doing, by engaging them in artistic expression. The name of this project? “I Can!”

Thirty children whirl around in a circle, big grins on their faces, as they practice a new dance move they have just learned. “I Can!” – a project supported by UNICEF – encourages people with disabilities to express themselves through movement and dance. Thuo and the four other young leaders from Epic Arts are full of energy and enthusiasm.  Within no time the children, most of whom have disabilities but some of whom do not, have relaxed and are moving unselfconsciously.  

Participants express themselves through movement and dance at the “I Can!” workshop
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

As soon becomes clear, the workshop does far more than just encourage artistic expression.

See ability, not disability

“We want to show the children that there are a lot of things that children with disabilities can do,” explains Thuo. She and her fellow young leaders encourage them to think about all of their abilities. Huge sheets of paper and coloured pens are brought out. They are soon covered with myriad colourful drawings of all the things these children love to do. These will be used as the inspiration for a creative performance which will be given by the children to a gathering of parents, community members and key local decision makers later in the day.

Socheat, a young leader with Epic Arts, demonstrates a dance move
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

“We encourage the children to come up with their own ideas and then we turn it into a performance,” Thuo tells me. Why is giving a performance to the community important? “Life is difficult for people with disabilities. If no one in the community encourages them, they get left out. We are raising awareness and understanding of the rights and abilities of people with disabilities.”

The project aims to challenge negative perceptions of disability by demonstrating that people with disabilities are capable of many different things.

Positive role models

It is also clear to see that the children look up to Thuo and her team mates. Socheat and Teully, both young men who use wheelchairs, show off their talent as dancers to the delight of the children. An important part of this project is to inspire children with disabilities through the example of these young leaders. Providing positive role models can help children to feel more confident and improve their self-esteem.


Thuo (second right) and her team mates from Epic Arts show off their moves!
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sam Waller

Thuo is very pleased with what “I Can!” has achieved so far. “I’m so happy we have been able to help so many people with disabilities,” she enthuses. “When we perform I see that the children are very happy. They tell me that they are able to show what their abilities are. In the future I want to continue to help children with disabilities.”

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