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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Families suffering with mentally disabled kids

Families suffering with mentally disabled kids

But experts say they believe there is consensus that more action should be taken with this group.

FAMILIES dealing with intellectually disabled children often face rampant discrimination and crushing emotional burdens, according to Cambodia's first report on the subject, released on Wednesday.

Despite the challenges, government officials and NGOs say Cambodia is moving towards better and more inclusive treatment of what one expert described as Cambodia's most vulnerable population.

In a country where an estimated 36 percent of people live on less than US$0.63 a day, a child with an intellectual disability can cut family income in half because at least one family member may have to stay home with the child, according to the report, titled "Toward a Cooperative Approach: A Study on the Situation of Children with Intellectual Disabilities".

Parents who have [a child with an intellectual disability] tend to be hopeless.

"Parents who have this kind of child tend to be hopeless," Kong Vichetra, executive director of the Komar Pikar Foundation, a foundation for children with intellectual disabilities, said in an interview. "They have to look after the disabled children who cannot be left alone."
Kong Vichetra said he believed people with intellectual disabilities to be "the most vulnerable in Cambodia".

Because programmes that target children with intellectual disabilities require highly individualised care and are unable to reach large populations, donors have largely overlooked these children.

That trend has pushed "individuals with intellectual disabilities to the margins of NGO activity in Cambodia", the report claims.

Cristina Togni, who has worked with mentally disabled Cambodians for a decade, said she has seen some improvement, but that overall awareness remains low.

Compared to 10 years ago, when the concept of an intellectual disability was largely unknown, people can now recognise when a family member is affected by an intellectual disability, she said.

But Plong Chhaya, a child protection officer at UNICEF, said many Cambodians still believe people acquire an intellectual disability because "they did something bad in a past life".

According to the report, the next few years will be critical in the effort to improve the plight of people with intellectual disabilities.

As today's children with disabilities grow up and their parents die, they will require substantial care, putting a heavy financial strain on NGOs and the government, the report states.

But with last week's signing of the national disability law by King Sihahomi, many experts said they believed Cambodia was headed in the right direction.

"The law could pave the way to improving the participation of persons with intellectual disabilities in exercising their rights," Plong Chhaya said.

Jennifer Carter, author of the report and a researcher at the Swiss NGO Hagar, told the Post that the ratification of the disability law - along with the participation of three separate ministries at the workshop - showed that there was a general consensus that action was needed.

"We're all on the same team," she said.



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