Seng Thavy learns the skills to help his fellow Lao
AMBODIA can now boast of its own internationally-accredited school which is training
students - from Cambodia and abroad - to make, fit and maintain the devices
that can help the disabled lead better lives.
The Cambodia School of Prosthetics (replacement limbs) and Orthotics (braces), founded
in 1994, was accredited this year as a "Category 2" training institute
by the International Society of Prosthetics and Orthotics - one of only three such
schools in the world.
"It's a sad expertise to have to have," said CSPO principal Carson Harte.
He noted that polio victims, some as young as three, are possibly as common as mine
victims. "They're victims of warfare as much as amputees; one cannot be inoculated
when one's country is falling apart."
Harte was enthusiastic about the new accreditation. "It means that we teach
at an international standard and our graduates can hold their own with anyone in
With the accreditation, Harte hopes to make the school a regional presence; he has
had inquiries from places as far away as Sri Lanka and Taiwan.
"It's an important step in the return of some pride in the country," he
said. "We've got something here people [from outside] come to. It seems to mean
a lot to people."
CSPO took in its first two international students from Laos this school year and
hopes to train ten more Laotians in the coming years.
"I finished prosthetics school in Laos but it was not excellent," said
Vientiane native Seng Thavy, 32. "It's a very high level course here ... I want
to get high technical experience to help Lao people."
Instructors say Thavy is doing well in his course; instruction is in English so his
lack of Khmer is not a problem.
"I am very happy with the group here, they take care of me," he said.
The CSPO course runs for three years; two classes have already graduated, with graduates
fanned out in rehabilitation clinics around the country. Three more classes, with
about 12 students a year, are still studying.
Bo Kimsong, 46, graduated in the first class, in 1996. He worked with Handicap International,
and has now returned to be an instructor.
"I am the first Khmer teacher in the technical field," he said. "Teaching
is my favorite job, and I think it is a good thing for the future. When the experts
go back to their countries, Khmer people can be teachers."
Harte said there are five expatriate staff members at the school now, but the hope
is to replace the expats with Khmers within five years.
Kimsong said he's seen improvements in the school in the three years since he left.
"Everything has become better since I was a student."
In the first year, students learn how to make devices; in the second, to fit them
to people; and in the third, students work in a real clinic to fit and monitor patients,
working with doctors, physiotherapists, and community workers.
"This year is an internship [in the clinic]; we can fit the person and then
they leave," said third-year student Chim Kolvuth, 38, standing over a cast
of a lower leg. "Last year we only studied." Upon graduation, he will go
to work in a clinic with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Battambang.
"This job is very difficult but very, very interesting," said Thor Pheasa,
president of the first-year class. "My uncle died during the Khmer Rouge regime
when he stepped on a mine. That is one reason I'm here. Also, I've seen many, many
disabled people in Cambodia."
Students pay no fees to attend the school. Funders such as USAID's War Victims Fund
and the British Department for International Development cover costs now, although
with increasing intakes of international students, Harte foresees a day when those
fees can support the school.
One priority for CSPO, supported by Unicef, is to recruit and train female practitioners,
as disabled women are more likely to come for rehabilitation if they can be treated
by a woman.
"When a woman is disabled above the knee, she is very shy to take off her clothes,"
explained Chun Vandeth, 21. She said in her second-year class, there are four women
and six men.
"I like making them [prosthetics and orthotics]," she said, waving a leg
brace. "Sometimes you have to change them a lot. It's like a puzzle."
CSPO was set up by the British charity Cambodia Trust and is run by CT and partner
organizations including American Friends Service Committee, Veterans International,
American Red Cross, ICRC, Handicap International, and the Cambodian Disabled People's
Organisation. Representatives from the Ministries of Social Affairs and Education
also sit on the school board.
"With a person who has no leg, after we fit, the person can walk without a crutch,
free," said third-year Kolvuth. "We feel so happy to help disabled people
have a better life."