On Sunday, members of Access Siem Reap, a new action group set up by Canadian expat Rick Wakeman to “level the playing field for people with disabilities” donated a collapsible wheelchair to landmine victim Khuy Sophar, who lost both her legs at the age of eleven.
This is just one of the initiatives underway from the group, which aims to pave the way to giving disabled people more access to healthcare, housing, jobs and education.
Wakeman, who has been visiting Siem Reap for six years, set up Access in July.
“My daughter has cerebral palsy, so I have a natural affinity for paying attention to the needs of people who are disabled,” he says, “What I’ve discovered over the years is that not only are people with disabilities in this community marginalised, they’re actually isolated to the point where they’re just not seen, not heard from, or may have no connection to the real marketplace at all.”
Wakeman says many disabled people are trapped in low-paying jobs where they are not necessarily treated fairly, but find it hard to leave.
“I got to the point where I just decided that I wanted to take some action, and so I started to invite people to join me,” he says. “People who are working in the area who have integrity, people who are in fact themselves disabled and might make a contribution to improve things.”
Sophar was one example of someone whose life will be turned around now after receiving her new wheelchair. Wakeman explains that her former chair was very low-grade and not collapsible, which limited her movements.
“If she wanted to travel somewhere by tuk tuk or bus, she was restricted from doing so because her chair didn’t collapse and couldn’t be transported with her. She basically was trapped at her project unless she decided to wheel herself somewhere,” he says.
“She made an observation one day that she would love to have a collapsible chair. I asked in our group where someone would find one in Siem Reap. Mitch St. Pierre had one that he wasn't using, I set up the meeting and the presentation went down.”
He adds, “It's complicated but the fact that she now has a collapsible wheelchair means her life options increase dramatically. It's more than just being able to transport the chair with her, when and if she can afford the transport – it frees her to consider leaving a bad situation. It's really all about access, about choices, about opportunity and she is in a better place today in that regard because of Mitch's generosity.”
Other plans for the future include setting up a job centre, and wheelchair-accessible housing.
Wakeman is working on building an accessible house in Kampot with some help from a local architect, Stuart Cochlin and says, “We’re working towards looking at independent living for people in wheelchairs and seeing if we can create a model. I’m hoping that we can say that here’s a standard that’s not unreasonable and that people can live by.
“Here in Siem Reap I’ve been going around visiting accommodations that might be available to people on a low budget in terms of accessibility. There are all sorts of issues – the hot water heater controller is up here, how do you reach it? Can you get your wheelchair into the bathroom, that kind of thing. So I’m working with a contractor on aspects like ramps, specifications and costs.
“I’m also working with another fellow to set up a job centre for people with disabilities, where we try and create a labour exchange. We assist them to identify their skills and then start to open the door to that. It’ll take a while, but we’re going to create a database so that if an employer comes to us, we can press a button and say here are three people.”
Wakeman says that as well as increasing awareness locally, there is also the tourist market to consider, something which is growing especially in Europe and North America.
“There’s a real strong potential for awareness in the community to happen through the tourist industry,” he says.
“There are a lot more tourists now with disabilities who are travelling and tend to travel with money, so there’s an opportunity to capture that. And if you do put yourself in a position to capture that market, you have to make some accommodations that have ramps, perhaps wider doorways, those kinds of things.”
Wakeman concludes that he is “very optimistic but realistic” about the future.
“It’s going to be a step at a time,” he says. “It has to happen with people with disabilities taking control somehow, and that’s not a short journey here because they are lacking so many experiences that would make it easy for them.
“There’s got to be a lot of nurturing and support around them, but always with their voice in the conversation. That’s where the sustainability is.”