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Approach to disability questioned

A blind woman sings for donations on the side of a road in Phnom Penh. A recent research paper says that failure among foreign donors to take into account the Kingdom’s cultural attitudes towards disability often results in less effective intervention efforts.
A blind woman sings for donations on the side of a road in Phnom Penh. A recent research paper says that failure among foreign donors to take into account the Kingdom’s cultural attitudes towards disability often results in less effective intervention efforts. Sreng Meng Srun

Approach to disability questioned

Well-intentioned donor organisations working to assist the disabled often adopt an approach that is ineffectual in Cambodia, according to the doctoral research of Cambodian scholar Monyrath Nuth.

Based at RMIT University in Australia, Nuth authored an extensive case study examining whether the “rights-based” approach to disabilities promoted by international donors is applicable in developing countries like Cambodia. His research concluded that the situation of disabled people in the Kingdom was not effectively improved due to the prioritising of Western concepts of human rights and inclusion.

“This unconscious privileging of Western assumptions embedded in policy practice resulted in program outcomes that were not sustainable and produced limited opportunities for Cambodians with disabilities to thrive,” Nuth wrote, adding that this “thwarted any hope Cambodians with disabilities may have had for realizing their rights and equality”.

In developed countries such as the United States and Australia, an approach to disabilities known as the “social model” has been widely endorsed and adopted. This approach aims to separate the concept of disability from a person’s physical impairment, and instead focus on changing the ways relationships and interactions fail to enable the participation of disabled people in society.

The UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which came into force in 2008, obliges signatories to adopt this approach.

But Nuth argues that traditional beliefs in Cambodia are often at odds with this agenda.

For example, religious belief in Cambodia has helped form an understanding of disability as a limitation to physical or cognitive functions alone. A longstanding belief that disabilities arise from bad karma permits people to accept their impairments as fate, and to accept this as an abnormality. This belief also obligates family members to care for their disabled relatives.

Hoping to shield their relatives from shame or judgment, many family members believe it is immoral to allow disabled relatives to engage in complex physical activities in public.

“This view contradicts the dominant Western conceptions of social inclusion that put emphasis on employment and accessibility to all public spaces as a key aspiration relating to inclusion,” Nuth writes.

Instead of lobbying for accessibility, some Cambodians instead perform ceremonies for their disabled relatives in order to improve their karma.

What’s more, many international programs focus exclusively on individual beneficiaries. But Nuth argues these programs should provide holistic support to whole families, given the pivotal role families play in deciding which services their disabled relatives can access.

According to Nuth, poor people in Asia also care more about improving access to education, health care or rehabilitation services for the disabled than they do about obtaining political or employment rights or promoting policies of inclusion such as building access.

Echoing that sentiment, Heng Phan, an advocate for disabled people and author of the blog People Living with Disabilities, said that a lack of access to education and health care is the most pressing issue for disabled people in Cambodia.

“[The disabled] get some referral services from local and international NGOs, but it’s not so effective. For the education sector and health care programs, all of this needs support from the government,” Phan said.

Nuth notes that the concept of full human rights, especially civil and political rights, is often rejected by Asian leaders in favour of collective and community interests.

About 80 percent of the world’s disabled population lives in a developing country. As such, Nuth argues that it’s important the cultural context of the country in question be taken into account. “The meaning of disability should be approached based on the experiences of people with disabilities in the global South as they represent the vast majority of the world population with disabilities,” he writes.

But Ngin Saorath, executive director of the Cambodia Disabled People’s Organization, argues that it’s a mistake to view this rights-based approach as something foreign to Cambodia, or as solely donor-driven.

“We have been talking about disabled rights since 1994,” Saorath said, pointing to increased turnout among the disabled at the polls and a growing number finding employment.

“I think our movement plays a very crucial role to promote disabled rights and human rights.”

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