Monday, July 31, 2017

Disability, not inability: One organization’s efforts to improve the lives of children with disabilities

By Frederick Howard

Students looking into a classroom at one of Hands of Hope's two partner schools
©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Frederick Howard

Kandal province, Cambodia, July 2017: In Cambodia, it is often the case that children with disabilities are hidden by their families, in the belief that they are to be ashamed of. Some children are even chained, or locked up, as parents don’t know how to deal with their children’s conditions or disabilities.  Children with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable and forgotten in Cambodian society: excluded from education and other aspects of life.


Due to limited services, families and guardians of children with disabilities have to take on the full responsibility of their care. The impact of this can be massive: parents can’t work and household income falls, resulting in deterioration of standards of living and an inability to provide adequate care for all children. Families affected by disability spend up to six times more on health care and four times more on transport, than families not affected by disability.

It’s not just at home that children suffer; in the community those with disabilities can often suffer stigma. Common attitudes towards disability focus on pity, unworthiness and incapacity.

But grassroots efforts are being made to give a better life to children with disabilities. In the province of Kandal, some 30 minutes south of Phnom Penh, a civil society organization, supported by UNICEF and Australian Aid, known as the Hands of Hope Community (HHC), works at tackling this fundamental lack of understanding and basic care. Their work takes many forms, from home-based care and educational services to parent meetings and movement classes.

One of HHC’s flagship programmes involves providing specialized education for children with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, or both, through the use of individual education plans (IEPs). A total of 47 children with disabilities are currently benefiting from these IEPs. As part of an individual education plan, a child is given the opportunity to attend school on a regular basis, where they are provided with three meals and exclusive classes in subjects such as health, hygiene and reading.

The inclusive education programme, another initiative by HHC, goes a step further with beneficiaries attending lessons in public schools alongside other children of the community. This creates an equal learning environment; and helps to prevent further marginalization of those with disabilities in society, especially amongst the younger generation. A total of 18 students are currently involved in the inclusive education programme across nine schools in Kandal province.

By providing education and care to children with disabilities during the day, the organization is also helping their families find the time and freedom to work and earn a much-needed income.

The base of the organization is the Aknuwat public School in Takhmao Town. A partnership with the school is allowing children with disabilities to spend time at the day activity centre where they can enjoy access to facilities like the toy library, movement room, and income generation and life-skills classes. Such facilities are initially beneficial to the recipient and also stress to parents the importance of activities like playing, exercising and learning, at the various stages of childhood development.

Additionally since 2014, a key feature of HHC’s work has been the home-based care programme. In part, this consists of help with and training in menial, yet crucial, tasks such as eating, bathing and using the toilet.  The aim is to reduce the need for intervention at a later stage. Sixty children currently receive two home visits each month, with fifty of them also receiving therapy in speech and movement during the visits. Recipients have shown improved fine motor skills and verbal/non-verbal communication methods.

HHC is also training parents on working with children who have physical and intellectual disabilities. One mother spoke of new exercises that she could do with her severely disabled daughter in order to help her move her hands and fingers, as well as stand up. The father of an 11-year-old autistic boy exclaimed, “thanks to the training, I feel I can be more involved in my boy’s development and help with his care. “

Besides delivering such critical services, HHC is involving families and local authority members in awareness raising activities to dissolve perceptions that lead to the marginalization of people with disabilities and to give children with disabilities a stronger chance of equality.

As a whole, social services available to persons with disabilities in Cambodia are lacking. Expenditure on social services related to disability is unaccounted for in the national budget, and those disability-support services that do exist focus almost holistically on physical disability.

This makes the work done by small organizations, such as Hands of Hope, all the more important in improving the lives of those affected by disability in Cambodia.

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