By Rachel McCarthy
Meas Vanna with her 6-year-old student, Mao Ess Ter outside their classroom.
Mao Ess Ter has had trouble reading and writing because of her low vision.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Rachel McCarthy
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 2016: At 57, Ms Meas Vanna has had a long career as a school teacher in Khan Russey Keo, a suburb on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh. For more than 30 years, she has taught children at both primary and preschool levels. But in all her years, she remembers not one child with a disability ever entering the gates of Boueng Chhouk school.
“Well, thinking back, there was once a child many years ago who I remember was unable to speak but she did not stay in school long,” Vanna said.
Children with disabilities often remain “invisible” in Cambodia, in many cases hidden from society, hidden from social support services and even hidden in official data and statistics.
In fact, there is no official data on the numbers of children with disabilities who go to school. There is also limited information on the numbers of people with disabilities in Cambodia generally, with official surveys suggesting figures well below global prevalence estimates.
It is clear, however, that children with disabilities unfortunately rarely go to school, as Vanna’s experience demonstrates. This is particularly true in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where urban poor communities are growing in numbers and where there are few preschools.
Thanks to the support of the IKEA Foundation, 25 preschools in the urban poor areas of Phnom Penh, including Vanna’s, were targeted for inclusive education training, provided by the Ministry of Education together with UNICEF. Preschool teachers spent a full week learning about inclusive education for children with disabilities, equipping them with skills to identify the signs of disability and impairment and ways to support children with disability. Their training involved disability typology, detection of disabilities, techniques to include children with disabilities in the classroom and referral options to social services including health centres.
“What I learnt made me more aware,” Vanna said of her training.
“I found that one child could not read or write well and I did not know why. So I moved her to the front of the classroom so that she could see the board more clearly and so that I could more easily observe her. She also suffered from a bad skin infection I had not noticed. I reported her skin condition to her parents who took her to hospital.”
“I’m pleased to see she’s doing much better – her skin has improved and she is able to follow the class. Her reading and is writing is now very good. She simply could not see the board and needed glasses. She is a very bright student.”
District Deputy Director, Mr Soth Setha, was also part of the training on inclusive education. For him, understanding inclusive education has helped his district to better identify children with disabilities. Of the seven schools in this area, two have also received intensive monitoring and support to serve as good practice examples. As a result, five children in these two schools have been identified as having some form of disability, including intellectual impairment and speech impairment.
Children in Ms. Meas Vanna’s pre-school class in Khan Russey Keo, Phnom Penh.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Rachel McCarthy
“These children are now receiving greater focused attention,” Mr Soth said.
“We are aware of their condition, so we are better able to adjust ourselves and support them.”
“Mostly, training encourages an attitude of inclusiveness. It’s normal to let people with disability be left alone without support. This approach is changing attitudes, which is a big part of what needs to happen.”
Support from the IKEA Foundation through UNICEF has extended to training village chiefs, commune focal points and core parents (active parents in the community) who have established a network among parents in the community to help disseminate information on parenting practices and messages, with a particular focus on children with disabilities.
“This has helped communities to really pay attention to the needs of children with disabilities, as well as the overall health and nutritional needs of all children. It helps them know when they need to bring them to health centres or how to support them in schools,” he said.
Altogether, some 2,000 children in the target preschools are expected to benefit from the inclusive education programme. At least 21 of these children have a disability and have been identified as a result of the training.
For Vanna, this number is surprising, given her long career as a teacher.
“It makes me look back and wonder – how many children with disabilities have I simply missed? How many never came because they thought there was no place for them?”
UNICEF continues to advocate for the greater inclusion of children with disabilities into school and continues to work closely with the Ministry of Education through its commitment to providing education for all children.