A pilot project in Takeo province is enlisting families, teachers and administrators in the fight to bring more kids with disabilities into the classroom.
In line with a government-backed plan to make education in Cambodia more inclusive, the NGO Catholic Relief Services launched the project in late 2010, and is using four schools in Samrong district as a testing ground.
Kids benefiting from the extra attention have “very general impairments, but less severe,” said Ke Dararoth, the education program manager at CRS.
“Mostly, we find more children with hearing disabilities. Second biggest are children with low vision and children with learning difficulties.”
They also work with children whose mobility is impaired.
Schools for students with a variety of handicaps exist, but are in short supply and often too far away for families to reach on a daily basis, Dararoth said.
The project also trains teachers to work with disabled students and identify practical solutions to problems. If a student has poor vision, for example, the teacher might place him at the front of the class, near the blackboard, or situate his chair by the window to take advantage of the natural light.
But the solutions, and the conditions, aren’t the same across the board.
One villager whom CRS worked with, Suon Eang, recently asked his son, Suon Marong, why he wasn’t going to school any more. Marong, a 12-year-old child with dwarfism, had a simple answer.
“He responded that he had no means to get to school,” Eang said. The walk was too long and he grew tired on the way. He dropped out.
In response, CRS purchased a specially designed bicycle to fit his body type and size. Now he pedals every day to class on his own.
“He goes to school at regular times, and his studies are also improved,” Eang said.
Kang Than, who worked with CRS as deputy director of the education department in Samrong district, said one of the challenges he faced was explaining to parents why their kids should be in school, “as they never encourage their children to get into the schools, because they thought that once they are in school, they still cannot do anything”.
The overall landscape for inclusive education is slowly changing. In the past five years, advocates have successfully helped push through legislation that, at least on paper, guarantees the rights of the disabled.
In early 2009, the National Assembly passed a statute enshrining protections for people living with disabilities.
Later in the same year, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport adopted a plan to implement its Policy on Education for Children with Disabilities, which aims to broaden access to education, increase enrolment and get communities involved, among other goals.
While the policy has all the right motives, said Cambodian Disabled People's Organisation executive director Ngin Saorath, it could use more funding to back it up and include children with severe disabilities.
“For me, I think it’s a social responsibility to equip teachers. We have a good policy. But it’s still not yet well-addressed,” he said.