Better Lives for Disabled People:
Working for a brighter future for people living with disabilities in Cambodia
Although a reliable count of the current disabled population is not available, it is generally
accepted that Cambodia has one of the highest occurrences of people living with disabilities in
the world and that approximately 21% of this disabled population are children. The most common
types of disability among children in Cambodia are Polio, hearing and visual problems and
problems relating to the brain such as Cerebral Palsy and emotional and behavioral problems.
Unlike in many other countries, the Cambodian government has made minimal efforts to help
those with physical or mental disabilities – providing limited help for the deaf and blind. Very few
children born with disabilities have the opportunity to go to school, and unfortunately often their
families are unable or unwilling to give them the help they desperately need and deserve. Sadly,
a large percentage of people in Cambodia, a predominantly Buddhist country, believe that
disabled people were born with problems because of bad deeds they committed in a former life.
As a result the community often has little desire to help them, for fear of becoming disabled
themselves in their next life. Even those who view Cambodia’s disabled with a kinder eye, think
that it would be better for them to die, in hopes that they will be reborn into a better situation or
physical body. The effect of this point of view is that many are forced to exist separated from the
rest of society.
The Sao Sary Foundation (SSF) believes that with the right support, young disabled people can
become independent members of society.
SSF’s goals are to assist young disabled people using therapeutic techniques to help them live a
more independent, better quality life.
Our approach is a holistic one, working with patients on both mental and physical levels, aiming
to improve the all around quality of life. As well as improving these young people’s physical wellbeing
and movement capacity, therapists also teach relaxation techniques and basic literacy.
Another important aim of the project is to raise awareness and educate the families and
communities that the young disabled people live within, in order to change the negative attitudes
currently held about disabled community members.
Recently, SSF has hired physiotherapist Pongaphotra In, who has committed much of his free
time to trying to educate the poor communities in Kampong Speu about the realities of physical
and mental disabilities.
Pongaphotra In is working with Socheat, a sixteen year-old girl with cerebral palsy, as a pilot
project in the Kampong Speu province to demonstrate to her community that she can be assisted
to improve the quality of her life. Since meeting Socheat in March 2008, he has sought to
rehabilitate her using a Japanese form of therapy called Do Sahou which works with patients on
both a mental and physical level, improving their motivation and movement control.
The work that Pongaphotra In has been doing with Socheat has so far been extremely
successful, over the past year he has seen a huge improvement. “At first even her family did not
believe that she could be helped,” he said, “but after working with her for several months, she has
learned to sit up on her own and even express herself to some degree,” whereas before, she
could do nothing but lie in bed.”
Currently, Pongaphotra In visits Socheat two hour sessions twice each week. SSF hopes to be
able to bring her to live at our compound where she could be better cared for and where the
presence of other children could provide the encouragement she needs to continue working
towards being able to feed herself, and perhaps walk someday.
Aspirations for the Future:
SSF hopes to be able to acquire funding to expand the project, to be able to help some of the
other hundreds of children living with disabilities in Kampong Speu.
For this, SSF will need more staff trained in the specialist techniques that Pongaphotra In has
been using with Socheat. Pongaphotra In plans to train some of the older youth supported by
SSF in Doh Sahou techniques. He would also like to educate and train the families of children
with disabilities in ways in which they can help support their children’s development.
Futhermore, in order for young people with disabilities to be successful in living within their
communities, there needs to be a huge shift in the currently negative perspective held of disabled
people in Cambodian society. For this, the continued education of the community and the
expansion of the project - to prove that the young disabled people can indeed become
independent members of society - is of paramount importance.