When I say I work with people with disabilities in Cambodia, the typical response is “Oh, you mean landmine victims?” The answer is no. Those I work with far outnumber this group, and yet they have waited over 20 years for recognition. I believe they cannot wait any longer.
In the 1990s, a flood of foreign aid entered Cambodia to assist war victims with physical disabilities. While landmines and other remnants of war continue to injure, joint efforts by the Cambodian government, the UN and NGOs have made significant strides in clearing land of mines and providing support to victims and their families. In 2013, there were 111 new landmine injuries. By comparison, an estimated 15,000 children who need speech therapy are born every year.
In total, it is estimated that 1 in 25 Cambodians have a communication or swallowing disorder and therefore need speech therapy. These are men, women and children who have difficulty speaking and who, because there are very little services available to them, cannot participate in society. For those with swallowing disorders, the most serious repercussion is death, because food and liquid does not safely enter the stomach, instead entering their lungs. As a result, these people contract pneumonia, and often die.
In other countries, speech therapists work in schools, hospitals and clinics to address this population. If Cambodia was to have the number of medical professionals needed to treat this population, there would be over 6,000 speech therapists. And yet, there is not one. There is currently not one Cambodian-university trained speech therapist, nor is there a university degree or government policy to initiate this change.
The truth is: it simply doesn’t have to be this way. I have personally met and worked with several children with communication problems who, with the support of trained speech therapists, have experienced life-changing moments. Speech therapy can transform lives: enabling communication among family and friends where it once did not exist; allowing children to receive an education; assisting adults to find employment and contribute to their communities and the economy.
The economic cost of doing nothing for this group is huge. Research in the UK has shown that for every £1 ($1.50) spent in speech therapy services for people with a swallowing problem, we can save £2.3 in health care cost savings through avoided cases of pneumonia. By comparing the loss of income as a result of a communication disorder, and comparing this to the cost of treatment, it is estimated that the US loses 2.5 – 3 per cent of gross national product (GNP) yearly. In Cambodia, this is equivalent to almost $400 million in lost GNP every year.
The bottom line is that investing in speech therapy is not only vital for fulfilling the right to basic health care, it will also give a significant boost to Cambodia’s social and economic development. The return on investment is limitless.
Speech therapy could change the face of Cambodia, giving voice to the voiceless. When I started OIC: The Cambodia Project, I wanted to bring attention to those who had been ignored for too long.
Though our team is committed and energetic, we can’t create 6,000 speech therapists alone. Partnerships with government and development partners is essential.
Twenty years ago, the focus on landmine victims was justified. But today, statistics show that the need to provide speech therapy in Cambodia has been lagging behind.
I will be taking this urgent call to action to a high-level meeting with the Cambodian government, the UN and other key development partners in the disability sector in the coming weeks. Through joint recognition and efforts, we can reach those 1 in 25 Cambodians with communication and swallowing disorders.
The time for speech therapy is now. It cannot wait.
Weh Yeoh is the managing director of the OIC: The Cambodia Project.