In Cambodia people with disabilities are often invisible to most able-bodied people and when they are seen it’s often through a lens of victimhood that focuses on a presumed lack of independence or the idea that begging will be their only source of income.
A Phnom Penh-based photographer and curator originally hailing from Portugal, Miguel Jeronimo is working with several artists to hold an exhibition showcasing people with disabilities’ whose lives defy those stereotypes.
“The From Disability to Visibility exhibition is a platform to provide visibility and give a voice to people with disabilities in Cambodia to show that they have talent and can live an independent life,” he says.
Stories abound of people with disabilities who are able to survive on their own: A man with one leg who climbs palm trees to collect the sap to make sugar; a man with one eye who became a computer programmer and teaches kids how to use computers; a blind man who earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature; and deaf people who are tuk-tuk drivers or kitchen staff.
There are individuals who were affected by polio in their childhood causing paralysis and forcing them to use a wheelchair for the rest of their lives who are now NGO directors and programme coordinators.
These courageous individuals are examples of people with disabilities who are independent and do not rely on others for assistance for their survival and they are featured in a new exhibition at The Factory in Phnom Penh organised by Jeronimo.
“From artists to rice farmers, from musicians to mechanics, from physiotherapists to computer engineers, I’ve been meeting amazing and resilient individuals who’ve created a life for themselves and have shown society that they are more than their impairments,” says Jeronimo.
“A beautiful case of success, for instance, is a young woman with hearing impairment who came to the NGO All Ears Cambodia and now, after being treated and receiving a hearing aid is now working to help other people with their hearing impairments,” he says.
Jeronimo has also used his photographic artwork to help raise funds to support people without a safety net during pandemic.
He tells The Post: “It’s urgent to break down the stereotypes that people with disabilities are not good enough to contribute to society and we hope with this exhibition we can show that there are incredible people in Cambodia who overcame their limitations and are great at what they do.”
The idea to organise the exhibition was sparked by the Heinrich Boell Foundation who suggested that they do an art show focused on the topic of disability.
Jeronimo says the foundation works in Cambodia to promote projects related to human rights, gender equality and the environment.
“The disability theme is very important to focus on here considering that disabled people still have to deal with many barriers in terms of inclusion and access,” Jeronimo says.
There will be artwork from nearly 20 artists in the exhibition – some of them with disabilities themselves – as well as able-bodied artists who wanted to support this issue and promote a message of inclusion and empowerment for persons with disabilities.
Some of the disability related issues that are important right now are the development and teaching of Cambodian Sign Language, the need for more inclusion in the workplace, accessibility and mobility issues and simply the need for empathy and understanding from the rest of society.
“It has been an incredible learning experience for me as well, and definitely there are many great people in the country working every day to promote better and more independent lives for people with disabilities,” Jeronimo says.
The exhibition will include people with both physical and mental impairments and carry the important message that not all disabilities are visible.
“We attempted to present different views about the topic, from the medical to the social model of disability, as a way to promote discussion about it, raise questions and propose solutions,” says Jeronimo.
Several artists with disabilities who are quite prominent in their fields will also exhibit their artworks during the twenty-day exhibition. The mix-media artist Chan Phoun has an installation made out of painted bricks, while Morn Chear does block printing and Kim San is an established painter.
After interviewing a number of people with disabilities, Jeronimo says they share a common message that as a society people need to stop closing their eyes to this issue and stop thinking that a person with a disability should just stay at home.
He says: “They are some of the strongest and most inspiring people I’ve met, but at the same time in other ways they are just average people like us.
“If given a chance they can do whatever an able-bodied person can do. It’s all about breaking down this preconceived idea that people are disabled solely by their own impairments when they are not.
“They are disabled by the society around them. With a more inclusive environment, for instance more ramps in buildings instead of just stairs – or equal access to education, jobs, health care and justice – they can really excel in their lives just like everybody else.”
From Disability to Visibility will have illustrated artworks exhibited by Khmer talents such as Adana Legros, Vodka, Ket Monnyreak, Sukunthkanika and Limhay Chum & Jin.
The exhibition will also feature photography by Tytaart, Erick Gonzalez and Ten Borey, a video-installation by Mech Choulay as well as paintings by Mil Chankrim and sculptures by Bor Hak.
Krousar Thmey, an organisation developing education for deaf and blind children, has a project with French-Khmer photographer Raphael Pech and traditional dancer Sokha Chim for a photo-shoot focused on the Apsara hand gestures doing signs from the Cambodian Sign Language.
AgileDG will show their Powerwheel, an invention that attaches an electric wheel to a wheelchair which transforms it into a small motorbike.
The Embrace Project is showcasing a sensory wall based on the kind of tactile objects they use in their rehabilitation workshops that help disabled persons achieve independence.
There will also be various portraits displayed of subjects helped by the NGO Exceed Worldwide with prosthetic limbs which make it possible for them to work and have an independent life and also from the football programme run by ISF which provides opportunities for blind children to participate in sports.
As a photographer who curates many artwork exhibitions about the environment, social issues and causes in Cambodia, Jeronimo thinks he’s seeing some progress being made but one issue that has persisted is a lack of information on this topic.
“There’s not even an agreement on the actual number of people with disabilities in the country. It’s a hidden problem and many families still facing discrimination and preferring to keep their children at home if they were born with a disability.
“But it’s gotten better in recent years, with more NGOs and the government paying more attention to the topic, but there’s still much to be done to make sure everyone has equal access to services and the right to live an independent life,” he says.
Jeronimo says one good example of this evolution is with the use of technology – for instance ride-hailing apps make life easier for a blind person by providing increased mobility, since public transport like buses is still quite limited.
Jeronimo says text-to-speech apps and the ubiquitous use of smartphones allows some persons with disabilities to communicate easier and engage with social media or use the internet for learning purposes.
On the opening day of the exhibition there will be a small reception at 1pm with snacks and drinks provided NGOs with catering programs employing people with disabilities.
At 2pm there will be a performance by the dance group Epic Arts. The group is made up of dancers with different types of disabilities and they are travelling from Kampot for this event.
“We also have a live painting session by artist Flori Green on a wheelchair with a wood installation by Manon and the wheelchair is going to be donated to a teenage girl in need after the exhibition is finished,” Jeronimo says.
He concludes by saying: “We are hoping many people will come for the opening to support the cause of equal rights, opportunities and access for those with disabilities and also to see the artwork and dance performance. We hope this will serve to inspire discussion about social inclusion of people with disabilities.”
The From Disability to Visibility exhibition opens February 20 at 1pm and runs to March 10 in the FT Gallery at The Factory Phnom Penh.