Wearing a blue t-shirt and jogging bottoms, Eddy is asked to select one of two photos and describe what he sees. Despite being able to understand English, Khmer and Chinese, the 10-year-old struggles to communicate with people.
Claire Banks, an Australian speech therapist who has worked with Eddy once every two weeks for six months at the Happy Kids Clinic in Phnom Penh, said his difficulty in communication stems from his autism.
“We’ve been working on him being able to express himself more easily as he finds it difficult to use words and let us know what he wants. So we’ve been trying to put sentences together and we are practicing using pronouns.
“We’ve also been looking at him using more verbs so he’ll be able to tell me what someone else is doing and what he’s doing. We try to help him be able to say what he wants and what he needs so he can more easily talk with his family and his friends,” Claire said.
Eddy is just one child of many facing communication difficulties in the Kingdom – according to the most recent statistics gathered in 2016, one in 25 children in Cambodia require some level of speech therapy.
While Claire is among a growing cohort of foreign speech therapists working at the Happy Kids Clinic, a social enterprise run by the Organization to Improve Communication and Swallowing Therapy Services in Cambodia (OIC).
OIC is on a mission to train more local speech therapists to support the growing number of people in the Kingdom diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and brain damage.
‘Lack of speech therapists’
When Australian Weh Yeoh came to Cambodia in 2012 to volunteer with CABDICO, an organisation helping people with disabilities, he saw an absence of local speech therapists able to treat serious communication and swallowing disabilities among Cambodians.
Through CABDICO, Yeoh initially worked with children with speaking and swallowing difficulties caused by cerebral palsy and autism.
But in 2013, he established OIC as a CABDICO offshoot to address the gap in speech therapy services in Cambodia, recruiting speech therapists from Australia to work with him.
“He [Yeoh] found out that there were no Cambodian people who are experts in this field.
“He started creating infrastructure with a training therapy council and management team. The council provided training sessions to primary schools teachers on how to determine a child’s difficulty and help them practically,” said Chenda Net, OIC Cambodia Executive Director.
OIC has five organisational strategies. The first is the establishment of a certified speech therapy course at university level in Cambodia. Second is to cultivate understanding and support from communities, up to the national level, for issues surrounding speech therapy. Third is to provide training sessions and capacity building to strengthen teachers, institutions and parents’ abilities. Fourth is to research and develop speech therapy projects and pilot schemes. And fifth is to directly provide speech therapy to Cambodians with communication difficulties.
Chenda told The Post that helping to establish a speech therapy course at the University of Health Sciences is among the top priorities for the organisation.
“I think that it is important to make this faculty happen as there are at least 600,000 people in Cambodia who need this service. If they don’t get support or intervention in time, they will struggle to communicate in society.
“Children won’t attend school as their teachers will not have the skills to help and encourage them. Adults can lose their ability to work and participate in society, like finding a partner for marriage.”
Chenda said that people with disabilities should be supported with services funded by the national social security fund.
“The government loses resources in the long run because those with [unaddressed] speech difficulties cannot study and work,” she said.
OIC recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport for a five-year project starting this year and running until 2023, focusing on building the ability of kindergarten and primary school teachers to address communication difficulties in pupils.
The training programme will provide trainers to help kindergarten and primary teachers identify the signs of children with communication difficulties early on and help advise parents on finding early-intervention therapy treatment.
Chenda said the chances of successful treatment greatly improve if the condition is identified early.
“If parents find out about their child’s needs from a young age and seek treatment early, chances of development are possible. Some children need short-term help, but other people need long-term intervention, sometimes for their whole lives. This does not mean that after treatment all children can speak, but instead of speaking, they can often communicate through pictures and sign language,” she said.
Chenda said that OIC is set to lead in the creation of a faculty of speech therapy university course at the University of Health Sciences – in cooperation with the Ministry of Health – which will be launched in 2021, as well as assist in creating a teaching training curriculum for the National Institute for Special Education in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
She said that the programme can help train some 25 of speech therapists per year, with that potentially benefiting up to 10,000 children.
“We train teachers how to use speech therapy with difficult children in their classrooms. This provides benefits to those children, but also all the students as a whole,” said Chenda.
Since 2014, the OIC has partnered on programmes with The Rabbit School, Komapika Foundation, Mennonite Central Committee and Community Orientated Development Organization, Hands of Hope Community, Catholic Relief Services and also Unicef.
OIC is currently supported by donors from Australia and Singapore, with some of the local budget for a six-month training programme provided by the EU.
While OIC currently relies on foreign therapists, the organisation plans to completely disband in 2030 once its goal of training local experts comes to fruition.
“Unlike other NGOs, OIC plans to leave Cambodia in 2030 after we have trained 100 local professional technical trainers recognised by the government for their abilities,” Chenda said.
OIC is located on Street 500 in Phnom Penh. For more information you can visit their website (www.oiccambodia.org) or Facebook page (@oiccambodia).