The Rabbit School – an NGO that has provided education and vocational training for children and young adults with physical and mental disabilities in Cambodia since 1997 – has opened a new building equipped with a digital library in Phnom Penh.

The building, designed for kids with intellectual disabilities and autism, is located in Tuol Kork Primary School in Tuol Kork district.

It is one of 70 across the country being targeted by a joint partnership programme to educate out of school children (OOSC) in Cambodia, led by the France-based NGO Aide et Action (AEA) under the auspices of Educate A Child (EAC), a strategic partner of UNICEF.

The formal inauguration ceremony was presided over by Chea Cheat, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, on August 30.

According to Hun Touch, executive director of The Rabbit School, the building had been renovated since 2019 and now accommodates five classrooms: three emotional therapy rooms, one sensory room and the digital library. The renovations cost $46,000.

He added that the funds had received the support of AEA, EAC, World Trust and other individual donors as well as the parents of students.

In cooperation with the education ministry, the Rabbit School has since 2008 established a comprehensive inclusive education system that caters to children with special learning requirements at Tuol Kork Primary School.

“We use to have just two rooms for 40 children with minor to moderate intellectual disabilities and autism,” said Touch.

He thanked the ministry and the school principal for offering the children the opportunity to attend Tuol Kork Primary School, especially after Baby Rescue Centre was closed.

Touch noted that his NGO has so far expanded the scope of its education programme for children with autism to primary schools in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Kampong Speu, Kandal and Siem Reap.

There are currently 318 children receiving education via the Rabbit School – including 147 at Tuol Kork Primary School – with 62 teachers in three provinces.

An 11-year-old has been studying at the Rabbit School in Toul Kork for five years. He underwent surgery in Singapore for an ear condition, and now wears a hearing aid, while studying with the assistance of his mother.

“After his surgery, he still could not speak, but when we called his name – he turned to us. He knows his own name. Before he came to school he could not sit school, but now he can sit and listen and even speak a little. The school is teaching him to help himself, and I am waiting patiently,” she said.

She added that she spent the morning teaching him at home and brought him to school in the afternoon while her second son studied full time.

Cheat said at the ceremony that the programme has been carried out in partnership with 30 NGOs and national organisations. It ensures that all children – whether disabled, homeless and vulnerable, indigenous, impoverished, remote, and over-aged attend school and have the chance to access a quality education at pre-school and basic-level education.

“The project is fully integrated with our education strategic plan, focusing on the three strategic policies – equitable access, quality and relevance, and ownership and accountability. Cooperation between partner organisations and stakeholders is based on the needs of the community and the schools, as well as the work experience of our partners,” he said.

Teaching how to draw in a scientific way, Chhorn Chanpheak, who has been working at the Rabbit School since 2014, said: “In this digital classroom, the school has electronic devices that can teach children with intellectual disabilities and autistism, including iPads and e-book learning programmes.”

“We also have lots of Lego and puzzles for them to play with, which is especially stimulating to autistic children, who like to play and be creative. We have a lot of scientific materials, and self-help resources, including drawing tablets, which some children are really good at,” she added.

She added that the technology had to be used carefully, as some of the children could spend too much time with it – at the expense of their core studies.