Friday, August 25, 2017

How parents support groups are changing the lives of children with disabilities

By Lenka Tavodova

Nary, her brother and her parents ©DRIC/2017/Lenka Tavodova

It's a beautiful, sunny morning in Preak Chrey village, a remote community in Cambodia’s rural Lvea Em District. In a traditional house on the outskirts of the village we meet Ms. Phal Samphous. Ms. Phal’s 8-year-old daughter Nary is delayed in her development. “I realized that my daughter was different when she was two. She still wasn't able to walk. She struggles to understand the world around her and forgets things easily. She can’t read nor write,” Ms. Phal says.

Nary is a very happy girl with the brightest of smiles and endless energy. She loves to bike, go for walks and going to school. Every school morning she rises early, full of expectations of what she will get to do in class that day.

Even though Nary has learning difficulties she does not receive any extra support at school. “She's the only child with a disability in her class,” says Ms. Phal. “The teacher doesn't have time to pay any special attention to her.”

In Preak Chrey village, and many other parts of Cambodia, children with disabilities do often not receive the support they need. There aren't enough resources, and developmental disabilities are not well understood in families, communities and schools. Children with these types of disabilities typically remain inside with their families, excluded from society. Families with developmentally delayed children often find it difficult to cope with the situation.

Street life in Preak Chrey village, ©DRIC/2017/Lenka Tavodova

In January 2016, Ms. Phal heard about a parents' support group for parents who have children with developmental disabilities from an outreach social worker and decided to join straight away. She has never missed a session since. “I love it because I get to learn how to teach my daughter at home. I taught my daughter how to eat properly, to dress, groom and brush her teeth. Now she's able to do all these tasks without my help.”

The support group is run by NGO Center for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CCAMH). In the support group, parents and grandparents of children with developmental disabilities get to meet other families who understand their situation, learn about home-based therapy and receive disability counselling.

The parents' support group is a great place for sharing experiences and creating bonds with other parents who experience similar situations. Ms. Phal says: “I get to meet parents who are in the same situation as me. Sharing experiences make me feel much less alone and helps us get by.”

Through CCAMH, Nary and her parents also receive speech therapy and counseling. CCAMH is one of very few organizations in Cambodia that provide such services. “We provide home-based services for children with disabilities. Through our activities, we also want to raise awareness about disability and promote a positive image in society,” says Ms. Sok Dearozet, a psychologist from the center.

“Parents who have children with developmental disabilities tend to feel guilty or ashamed,” says Ms. Pary Tha, a CCMAH social worker and a member of the outreach team. “People in Cambodia believe in karma. They think that they must have done something wrong in the past, and that that's why they have a child with a disability.” The support programs help change these attitudes, help parents to stop feeling helpless and empower them to see the good in things so they can bring more happiness into the lives of their children.

The skills that CCMAH bring to these parents and grandparents are unique. In Cambodia, professions in the field of special education, speech and occupational therapy are largely unheard of. Parents and grandparents become the key to changing the course of their children's lives for the better by learning how to take care of them at home. “Basically, the parents become co-therapists and help their children in ways we alone never could,” concludes Ms. Dearozet.

UNICEF is working together with CCAMH to provide children with services that will support them reach their full potential. UNICEF supports CCAMH with a grant through the Cambodian Disability Inclusive Development Fund, a part of the UN joint Disability Rights initiative funded by Government of Australia.

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