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Stigma of the disabled

The recent genocidal Khmer Rouge era resulted in the deaths of millions of Cambodians in the 1970s, while displacing many who ended up in refugee camps in Thailand. The democratic elections in 1993 heralded a period of calm after decades of conflict and many of the displaced returned home only to find their land contaminated by mines that Pol Pot described as his "perfect soldiers" for their effectiveness in causing fear and death. With an estimate of 4-6 million landmines and unexploded ordnances still buried throughout the countryside, this toxic pollution continues to savagely exact a human, social and economic cost resulting in Cambodia having with one amputee per 290 people, one of the highest ratios in the world.

With over 90% of the Cambodian population being Buddhist, one would think that the belief in their responsibility to care and support those in need would greatly benefit the disabled. However, this is tempered by their belief in reincarnation and a disability is viewed as a result of a personal failing, in this life or a past one. Thus, the disabled are instead regarded with fear, mistrust and discrimination in a society where the stigma is rarely challenged.

In a society where status is largely determined by your ability to contribute to the family by working and/or earning money, it is no surprise that the disabled are marginalized socially and economically, forcing them to live in the shadows facing a life of low status and poverty. Male adults are particularly vulnerable as their value in society is erased by an amputation. Wives may leave them, they may turn to begging, while some become angry, depressed and/or reclusive.

Can you imagine a life where, treated as an outcast, the simple act of trying to earn a living by selling goods in a market can result in being spit on, driven out or harassed by the police and having your goods confiscated? Looking to your family as your only means of support only to have them deny you access into the home as they believe you bring in bad luck? A dream of an education is dashed as you are immobile and cannot get to school, or if you are in a wheelchair, there is no ramp to access your classroom and no disabled-accessible bathroom?

The hardships for people with disabilities is exacerbated by the fact that Cambodia has a very under-developed infrastructure with a healthcare system ill equipped to provide the basic services of therapy and treatment. NGOs have stepped in where government programs fall short but most are based in Phnom Penh and a few provincial capitals, largely limiting access for the majority of the population that live in the rural areas.

I am happy to say that Veterans International is the exception to the rule. Collaborating with three other NGOs specializing in supporting the disabled, these four organizations have taken responsibility for different provinces in Cambodia ensuring coverage to a wide sector of the disabled population. Providing access to health, education and employment opportunities through the delivery of their community-based programs, Veterans International not only offers prosthetics, mobility devices and physiotherapy free of charge, but conduct disability awareness campaigns to promote community understanding of the disabled, integrate vulnerable children into mainstream schools, and facilitate the formation of self-help groups empowering people with disabilities to advocate for themselves. Realizing that economic autonomy is a key element of rehabilitation in Cambodia, Veterans International also offers vocational training, provides grants and direct assistance so that the disabled may start their own income-generating businesses to improve their standard of living.

It is not enough to enable someone to walk again. Veterans International's work ensures the highest impact for the communities they work with while helping to reduce poverty and empowering the most vulnerable. They understand that by offering a holistic approach to improving livelihoods, they restore pride and a feeling of well-being that comes from being an equal contributing member of the community.

Around the world, most attitudes toward people with physical and intellectual disabilities are framed by negative stereotypes, borne of fear, ignorance and misconceptions. It is up to all of us to take a stand and raise awareness of the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of exclusionary words and actions, and reverse the stigma that is destructive to the lives of people with disabilities and a barrier to growth. We need a massive attitude change to attack the demeaning of any of our fellow human beings as not only do the actions and words negatively impact all of us but prevent all of our efforts to gain respect and acceptance of people of all backgrounds, cultures, races and ages. We must work together peaceably to celebrate what we have in common and to focus on those in need, even when they represent nations or areas that have been divided or are different in areas where values are uncommon. This power to connect and promote acceptance of difference – whether ethnic, religious, tribal, physical or intellectual – is a precondition for security and peace, from Portland to Phnom Penh, Cairo to Calgary.

As I work alongside VI director Josefina McAndrew and her small dedicated team, and seeing the smiles on the faces of their beneficiaries when they take that first step towards a bright future, I sense we are making headway but we have a long way to go. It starts with us to open a window of understanding, widen perspectives and build a safer, more accepting world for everyone.

"When I became a landmine survivor and a double amputee, I was so depressed. I thought that I could never work anymore, that my life was over. The wheelchair I received from Veterans International changed my life and I was able to move around. I feel more secure and confident and am now able to support my family. Thank you VI for helping me."
Rin Rumany (49), Husband and father of 7

(Photos courtesy of Veterans International)

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Comments

olutosin's picture

Informative

Thank you so much for bringing up the plight of these people and I believeyou will continually be their voice. They will definitely know that Worldpule is there live with them. My prayers is that every constituted authority will wake up from their slumber ans that individuals too will beome his or her brothers keeper. I love your voice, My sister from another womb. Please let the journal roll in.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town
Lagos-Nigeria

https:

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

dearest Olutosin,
Thank you for your comment, my sister. Yes, my hope is that one day each person shall have a brother or sister who is their keeper and it must start with us, those who see these injustices so clearly, as if not us who will give them voice?

Sending you light, love and peace,
Janice

Ralph Risch's picture

Inspirational work

Janice

Thank you for sharing your experience in Cambodia with us. VI's work is truly inspirational. I hope that your presence there will not only be an aid and a comfort to the disabled, but will also begin to change attitudes in the society so that others will be more open and supportive.

It is really impressive how much you have learned in your short time there. I look forward to reading all of your blog posts on World Pulse!

Best wishes,
Ralph

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

hi Ralph,
It is such a rewarding experience for me to be here and if I can help change the attitudes that persist, I'll be happy. There have even been cases where VI has built a ramp to a person's home only to have family members dismantle it when the disabled person returned home. It's a slow process but definitely worth the effort.

Best wishes to you and the family,
Janice

Lycia Ora's picture

Janice - we are so fortunate

Janice - we are so fortunate to have you reporting and being our eyes and ears for the many oppressed and marginalized in Cambodia. Thank you for sharing their stories for us my dearest one - they are profoundly changing my life!

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan

JaniceW's picture

You're so sweet

Thank you! Sending you heaps of well wishes for your Int'l Women's Human Rights clinic – it sounds just as life-changing. You are what we need to balance the injustices in the world, and you continue to inspire me with your service, commitment and light.

I'm so happy that you will clerking in NYC and to know that you will helping to clean up the streets of the less judicially-minded element. Can't wait to hear all about it. Enjoy what's left of summer. Big hug,
j

jaimekathleen's picture

Humbling

Thank you so much for your work. I find it quite amazing how much harder people must fight when faced with a disabling injury to successfully find themselves back in a "normalized" routine. At one time, the physical challenges seemed so much harder to me, but it's becoming apparent as I learn more that the social and emotional hurdles are truly the tallest. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to be disabled, but it's truly amazing and inspiring what humans are capable of achieving with the right encouragement and support.

JaniceW's picture

It's sad but true

Yes, as with any discrimination, exclusion or restriction of members of any marginalized sector of the population, it demands that the members of that group work that much harder to gain the opportunities available to others. Many countries have sought to redress discrimination and its negative effects but alas, Cambodia still has a long road ahead before the disabled are no longer deprived of their basic right to live a full life.

But in saying that, I have also witnessed how little it takes to restore a person's dignity and educate communities on disability awareness. VI stages campaigns to advocate for the tolerance, inclusion and compassion of people living with disabilities, and results have indicated an average 26% increase in knowledge and understanding after each workshop. It's a start.

Sarvina's picture

Welldone...

Hi Janice,

Your work is amazing and inspiring me much and many thanks to you for sharing your experience in Cambodia to them! In Cambodia, many disable people won't be accepted to work by many places but i'm sure many NGOs have helped them and educated them how to live in the disabled life and I have found that VI is a great place for helping Disabled Khmer people. The hardships for people with disabilities is exacerbated by the fact that my country has a very under-developed infrastructure as we are still lacking of health care system. I wish all the disabled people in Cambodia and also around the world are free to see the world and society and should be encouraged much for their lives.

In the name of Cambodian people, i'm so grateful to reading your experience in Cambodia and many thanks to you and VI that you have helped & educated to the disabled people to struggle in living condition. Most of the disabled people in my country have been moved by you and VI. Thank you Janice and Veterans International for your nice work to make a change in my community! Wish you and VI all the best....

Kind Regards,
Sarvina Kang
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

Ar kun Sarvina. Let's get together soon.
Janice

Dando's picture

Hi

Janice,
beautiful work you are doing,

and its wonderful to learn how you and VI are working to improve the lives of the least minority group of people.

wishing all the very best in your work and thanks for sharing the great work.

with love
Dando

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

Dando,
It's great to hear from you. Yes, VI is doing wonderful work and I am privileged to be able to report on their work. Being in the field, I almost feel like one of WP's correspondents although am not nearly as deserving of the honour as you all are. It's exciting to see the new group of applicants and it takes me back to when you were all applying.

You inspire me to be the best that I can be and to report as you do on the injustices in this world. Just as you stated in your report on Mary Chapo, "Disability is not inability". Keep up the great work!
Janice

Auma's picture

Dada...

Asante sana for sharing.I know how much stigma makes us feel unworthy and purposless.Thank you for highlighting this and this world truly needs a change-a total revolution.

Nakupenda sana,
Leah.

JaniceW's picture

Mpendwa Malaika!

Yes, stigma can be so destructive to one's sense of self-worth. I agree that we need a total revolution in thinking and join you in addressing the issues that suppress people and hold them down. Salama,
Dada

Insha Allah's picture

Thanks for the post

Dear Janice,

It is very intolerable that when wars and crisis occur, people (citizens) are the most affected one during and after those devastating situations although they are not the one who wish, lead and commit it. It is a very sad story that someone is a victim for the case which he or she does not have a chance to decide and choose.

Sometimes, traditional, religious and cultural beliefs strongly influence the ways people think and behave and that stigma became a huge reason for a failure in educating and working for better social and developmental services.
I wish people could understand that disabled does not necessarily mean being incapable of.

Nowadays, the word “humanitarian” is very common in the world. However, it is very disappointing that seeing those discriminated behavior to venerable groups in our society.

I am very glad to know about Veterans International and am greatly impressed with what they are contributing. I love the ways that promoting service delivery and awareness campaigns at the same time.

Thank you so much for your sharing, too. I really like reading this post which really highlights my knowledge on disability issue.
With love,
Shwe

Shwe Wutt Hmon

JaniceW's picture

Amyaji chezu tinbade

Shwe,
Not so long ago, the word "invalid" was used to describe people with disabilities. The very word itself says you are in-valid, of no worth. Thankfully, attitudes are changing, albeit slowly in some communities. I am so appreciative that young women such as yourself and those on PulseWire do not accept these attitudes and embrace all people for the beauty they bring into our world, regardless of their race, circumstance, economic situation or ethnicity.

Sumon kaung taung payy nay par tal,
Janice

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