CAMBODIA’S school for blind and deaf children is called Krousar Thmey, which means new family in the Khmer language.
Krousar Thmey supports a total of 2,000 children, 700 deaf and 300 blind, and about 20 percent of them are orphans.
According to General Director Auray Aun, being blind and deaf is sometimes difficult in a Buddhist culture where these sensory defects can be assigned to misdeeds in past lives.
“When you are blind or deaf in your Cambodian family, it is difficult,” Aun said.
“The family sometimes treats them as being useless. Some parents don’t even know what the capacities of the child are.”
Aun is a French-educated Khmer who left Cambodia in 1976 when he was two. Now he leads the Krousar Thmey foundation which is dedicated to helping deaf and blind children in a society where they are sometimes poorly treated and marginalised in their own homes.
“When they come in our school we try to make them recover their self-confidence. We try to give them all the tools to be autonomous. For the blind we teach Braille. For the deaf we give them tools of communication by reading and speaking because some of them have never heard a voice. We have to push them to speak by providing some speech therapy,” he said. “You will arrive in a group, in a school with people who have the same difficulty as you. You are more confident when you see a group of people who have the same difficulties as you. We provide some important self-confidence – but our main job is to try to change the mentality of the parents.”
During the last 20 years, Krousar Thmey has supported more than 1,000 children and created Khmer Braille, Khmer sign language and national textbooks from grade 1 through to grade 12.
Founded in 1991 by Frenchman Benoit Duchâteau-Arminjon, Krousar Thmey celebrated its 20th anniversary this year which was attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is himself blind in one eye, and thanks to his patronage the Krousar Thmey foundation enjoys national support.
“We have five special schools: a special school for the deaf and blind – one is only a deaf school – and the two others are mixed. We have one in Kampong Cham, one in Siem Reap and one in Battambang – providing basic education from grade 1 to grade 12, and it is completely free,” Aun said.
Many of the blind and deaf children come from poor families in the provinces and when blind children are admitted, they get to live at the school. Krousar Thmey supports all the children who have vision or hearing impairments by providing them with basic education, hearing aids and reading books for the deaf and textbooks in Braille for the blind.
Operating on mostly private funds, Krousar Thmey is also supported by various NGOs and foundations. “Our objective is to provide blind and deaf children with a basic education, so now we have students who have reached a high level of education and we are looking for what they can do now. For the blind, we look for opportunities in the labour market: besides massage – they can be a teacher in our special school.
For deaf people, the problem is more acute, Aun says.
“With the deaf, the problem is they cannot reach university level yet. We invited the president of universities to see our schools and what our children can do.”
Aun said it is harder for deaf people to communicate because they rely on their eyesight and when someone enters the room, it disturbs their concentration.
“The deaf can speak a lot, but they don’t hear their voice. Sometimes the deaf class is a mess, mainly with the young children, something very crazy. What the deaf people can do is jobs in a very noisy environment, such as in a garment factory,” Aun said.
Since November 2010, Krousar Thmey has been working on vocational training and job placement for the deaf and blind. “We noticed there are a lot of photographic shops in Phnom Penh specialising in wedding photographs. That’s a good job for the deaf,” Aun said.
School starts at 7am and Krousar Thmey operates a minivan that pick up the kids and brings them home in the afternoon at 5pm.
When blind children are admitted, they stay two years full time to learn Braille, orientation and mobility, English and mathematics.
“When they get to grade 3, they go to a public school for half a day, and come back to us for half a day. For the deaf, they stay full time for four years, because it is more difficult to teach sign language – and for the deaf, sometimes they can go back to stay with their families.”
Aun believes a high percentage of the blindness and deafness in Cambodia is caused by poor nutrition. There are an estimated 100,000 blind people and 150,000 deaf people in Cambodia, according to Aun.
Krousar Thmey employs 400 staff and all are Khmer – along with three French volunteers.
Aun’s strategy is not to develop a network of special schools – but rather have public schools open “Integrity Classes” for the blind and deaf so as not to separate the children from their close environment, family and community.
“When a community identifies at least seven children, deaf or blind, the head of the school should open a special ‘integrity class’ inside the public class, and Krousar Thmey will teach the class and provide the materials. Today, Krousar Thmey is active in 12 provinces with 44 integrated classes, 37 for the deaf, and seven for the blind.
“We think that if we include them completely we need to send them into a normal class with seeing and hearing children. This is inclusive. We do this because we want them to be self-confident and not be marginalised – to feel like a normal child,” Aun said.
“Discrimination comes from ignorance, and that’s from everybody: parents, children and the community.”
Aun says the deaf compensate for their lack of hearing with highly developed abilities in vision. “They are very good in observation,” he said, citing a case where a deaf student noticed a change in a teacher’s hairstyle a full year later. Similarly, the blind have acute senses of hearing.
For the blind, all Krousar Thmey schools teach music – and for the deaf – dance is taught. “All our schools have dancing rooms with wooden floors,” Aun said.
Another point is helping parents understand and teaching them to communicate with their deaf or blind children.
“We broadcast some news on the TV in sign language,” Aun said. Krousar Thmey’s website is www.krousar-thmey.org