Mental disabilities are not diseases that can be completely cured by medication or an operation. People who suffer from them require special education to learn how to be independent and specialised vocational training.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private educators and state schools provide special education to children and adolescents, which mostly focus on fine and gross motor skills, along with a basic general education.

Kampuchea Sela Handicap (KSH), a small Cambodian NGO, takes care of young adults with intellectual disabilities such as autism, Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy.

“Whether they have Down’s syndrome, severe autism or mental retardation, these young people have difficulty finding a place in Cambodian society,” said Valentin Dube, deputy director of KSH.

Dube said if more NGOs took care of the intellectually disabled public as children, then their entire adult lives could be changed. Currently, there are very few structures that welcome young adults and offer them a programme of autonomy and integration into society.

Some Cambodian people tend to see intellectual disabilities through the handicap a manifestation of Karma, marked by a Buddhist fatality.

“Most families find themselves isolated and without real solutions for the care of children with mental disabilities and even less so when it comes to finding a sustainable future for their child when he or she becomes an adult,” said Dube.

This is where KSH comes in. Its main objective is to accompany these young adults with mental disabilities towards integration and independence within Cambodian society while being able to claim financial autonomy for the organisation thanks to the work of their community.

KSH, supervised by 5 Cambodian educators and two European volunteers, currently welcomes 18 young adults (5 young men and 13 young women) to a home in the south of Phnom Penh, in the district of Meanchey.

It includes a sheltered workshop to prepare them for employment and integration into Cambodian society.

“8 beneficiaries with mild disabilities have mental retardation or Down’s syndrome. 6 with medium disabilities have Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy and 4 with severe disability are autistic” Dube told The Post.

One of the parents, who asked not to be named, said their child, now 27 years old, suffered from mental retardation.

They said that after completing the community living program and the job readiness workshop, he now works in a social enterprise, Khmer Green Charcoal, near the NGO, but lives and sleeps at KSH.

“We hope he will be soon independent. Thanks to his job at the organisation’s partner company, he earns a salary of between $180 and $200 per month. The company is keeping part of his salary in savings while teaching him the value of money. He is also sending money to help support his brothers and sisters,” they said.

KSH was born from an observation made by several NGOs in Cambodia, notably Pour un Sourire D’enfant, namely to develop a continuity of care for their beneficiaries with intellectual disabilities that reached 18 years of age.

Though employability and integration programmes are implemented by several NGOs, for their beneficiaries with mental disabilities, employability remains almost impossible.

Dube said it’s due to a lack of training for educators related to mental disability issues in adults, a still too archaic vision of part of Cambodian society towards mental disability and an almost nonexistent work environment adapted to this segment of the public in the Kingdom’s companies.

A French couple, both specialised educators, were invited to come and support the development of a structure in Cambodia aiming at welcoming, training and integrating these unique young adults.

The foreign volunteers are there to support and encourage, but the work must be taken in hand by Cambodians.

As an NGO working with adults aged from 18 to 35, KSH receives people whose were cared for by other NGOs as children and adolescents, as most of them come from a very disadvantaged social background.

“Today our young people are between 18 and 35 years old and have a range of disabilities, ranging from autism, Down’s syndrome, mental retardation, to cerebral palsy,” said Dube.

This diversity, he says, is one of the bases of our programme and they observed that cohabitation between the young people provides real mutual aid.

“The young people with a lighter handicap take those with a more severe handicap under their wing. It is these kinds of values, such as solidarity and community life that we want to instil in our youth,” added Dube.

KSH rolls out several training and life skills programmes for these young adults in the hope that they will one day be independent.

The Individual Development Program which was passed on to the local educational team is an educational tool that is present in Western countries and aims to develop the autonomy of the public under care.

It consists for example of explicit pictures displayed in the facility which describe the routine the team has established for each of the young people. They are adapted to the areas in which they need to improve, such as hygiene, communication, daily tasks and so on.

In addition, they have a weekly meeting where each young person can express his or her feelings about what is going well and what is not going well.

“Our educators are also there to suggest points to be improved and how to proceed. We also have several monthly evaluation tools (motor skills, ability to communicate, adapt and process information. We observe considerable progress in most of our beneficiaries,” he said.

Young people are encouraged to work on one or more tasks at home by cleaning, doing maintenance, cooking or and job preparation workshop while the team is there to supervise and advise them on how to improve.

This is the only way that our beneficiaries will learn responsibility for themselves. One day, they may be able to live independently,” he added.

Another couple, whose daughter is affected by autism, said it was suggested that they integrate her at KSH upon her 18th birthday. She was cared for by an NGO as a child.

The parents, who were not named – in accordance with the NGO’s policy – said their daughter is in the community living program where she is in charge of cooking for the canteen as well as in the workshop where she cuts fruit for jam.

“We think her disability will make it difficult for her to be independent in society, but KSH offers lifelong care for people in my daughter’s situation,” they said.

She is now able to control her emotions more, communicates with others and has a daily routine which is already very important to her, according to the parents.

Aside from their daily chores, they are trained to produce products by learning the process step-by-step.

Dube said that the idea of cooking jams and syrups comes from the fact that the process is quite simple and allows most of them to have an adapted workstation for each stage, such as cleaning the fruit, peeling, cutting, cooking, putting into jars, attaching labels to the jars, and so on.

“As time went by, we realised that the workshop allowed us to reproduce most of the elements of the work context: arriving at a precise time at the work station, having responsibilities, receiving a (symbolic) salary, and so forth,” he said, adding that the products met quality and hygiene standards.

The “Outside the walls” programme is designed to partner with coffee shops, restaurants and social enterprises where the most autonomous young people will be trained and employed. They return every evening to their NGO home.

“In return, they receive a salary ranging from $60 to $200 depending on their level. During this programme, our educational team evaluates them on several points, including the ability to communicate, to move and to grasp the concept of money,” he said.

Dube said they have 6 beneficiaries in the outside the walls programme, working for partner companies and returning home in the evening.

He admitted that instilling the basics of life or training them to become autonomous is not easy. It requires a lot of patience and resilience because they can both progress and relapse very quickly.

However, they made considerable progress and were given responsibilities.

“On the contrary, the fact of protecting them too much by thinking that they are disabled and thus unable to do anything will be counterproductive and will leave the individual totally dependent,” he added.

Though there are no official records of intellectual disabilities, it is estimated that there are about 20,000 cases of autism alone in Cambodia.

The challenge, Dube says, is not the person with the disability, but the way society views them and the considerable lack of means for them to be integrated into today’s society.

In response to these issues, KSH wishes to continue to intensify its mediation with the general public and local authorities regarding the conditions and recognition of people with intellectual disabilities in Cambodia.

“Our team is now part of several working groups in order to defend the cause of the intellectually disabled,” he said.