More than one thousand disabled Cambodians celebrated the International Day of Disabled
Persons on December 3, sending a series of clear messages to the able-bodied population.
Large white banners adjacent to the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, proclaimed:
"Your attitude can be my handicap!" Another message noted: "Persons
with disabilities: human beings not animals!"
The official slogan for the day was, "See ability rather than disability".
Activities included an early morning march, traditional dancing, running races for
amputees and blind competitors, wheelchair races and handicraft displays.
Cambodia has a good reason to make a big deal out of the international day - it has
one of the highest rates of disability in the world.
The Disability Action Council (DAC), which organized the activities, estimates that
more than 10 percent of the population is disabled. Ministry of Planning statistics
show that one in 65 are physically disabled.
DAC executive director Ouk Sisovann said the idea was to show the disabled were as
capable as able-bodied people.
"The theme is disability awareness raising to promote equal opportunity and
full participation of people with disability in all socio-economic activities,"
Sisovann said. He added that support from government and civil society showed more
attention was being paid to people with disabilities.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who famously lost his eye in battle, sent a message for the
day "as a disabled person myself". He expressed appreciation to disabled
people for their "active participation in the social life", and said the
government was working to alleviate the negative status of people with disabilities.
"We recognize that poverty and disability have certainly a very close link,
and disability is a complicated social and economic issue requiring the regular attention
of the royal government," Hun Sen wrote.
The Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, Ith Sam Heng, told the Post that services
for the disabled have improved over the past year.
"We have rehabilitation services in cooperation with NGOs, we have programs
for disabled people to help themselves in the community and we have launched campaigns
against discrimination on disabled people," he said.
High on the list for attendees were employment and vocational training for disabled
people. Thirty-six year old Meas Romney, who is paralyzed from the waist down, said
there was still not enough help for disabled people.
"But at least it is better than nothing - we can keep living," Romney said.
"I want to have a skill to earn income for my family, but I cannot get a job
because of my disability."
And Svay Sokun, who produces handicrafts with an NGO in Phnom Penh, felt that since
he had gained a job, discrimination had decreased and his standard of living was
higher. But opportunities for other disabled people were still poor.
"I want the government to coordinate business companies to accept and recruit
disabled people to work in their companies," Sokun said. He would also like
to see the draft Law on the Rights of People with Disabilities passed soon.
The planning process of the draft legislation has already taken six years, and Minister
Sam Heng would not say when it would be submitted to the National Assembly. But,
he said, the draft had recently been finished, and he believed the law would be submitted
"in the near future".
The last word came from Dr J. Bhoomi Kumar, director of the only dedicated mental
health center, who stressed the need to focus on mentally disabled people.
"Among the disabled, people with intellectual disabilities are a forgotten generation,"
he said. "They need to be included into mainstream society so they can contribute
to the development of the country."