In low- and middle-income countries, as many as 33 million children with disabilities are currently out of school. Stigma and discrimination combined with a lack of data — making them hard to reach — compounds the problem. A national survey conducted by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) in 2010 reported that over 10% of children aged 2-9 years have an impairment (especially in cognition, hearing, and speech), but this figure is thought to be widely under-reported, due in part to the fact that children’s impairments are frequently not recognized or treated.
In Cambodia, we have been developing classrooms in state schools around the country to cater for children with disabilities, enroll them into formal education, integrate them with other children their age and help reduce discrimination. In partnership with Rabbit School Organisation – an NGO oriented toward the rehabilitation and full integration of people with intellectual disabilities into Cambodian society – we have also been training teachers in inclusive teaching methods.
Three years ago, Paula received teacher training and has been teaching in Tea Banh Komrou Primary School in Siem Reap Province since. Paula has sixteen children of various abilities in her classroom, all enrolled in grades one and two. Most of Paula’s students have Down syndrome or autism and require specialized attention and care from their teachers. Before her training, Paula had no experience working or even interacting with children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are often invisible in Cambodia; absent from society, from social support services and from official statistics.
Even where children with disabilities are identified, they often face multiple barriers to education –parents, community members and even teachers frequently believe children with disabilities cannot be educated or participate in social activities. Stigma and discrimination associated with disabilities exacerbates exclusion and while Paula has seen considerable improvements in her three years of teaching, she notes that discrimination still exists in the community and on the school playground.
“More changes are needed as well as just time and patience” says Paula when asked how we can work towards reducing discrimination. “While I want to reduce discrimination too, my top priority is on the kids themselves; on giving them what they need” she adds. “This project we are doing together gives children who have been abandoned hope and it gives me hope too”.
Through our project, we reached over 350 students with special educational needs in the first six months of 2019, providing equitable, quality and relevant primary education and held eight counselling meetings between teachers and parents to ensure progress. We also provided learning and teaching materials, including reading and writing books, stationary, visual aids and miscellaneous items to 22 classrooms across the country.
In recent years, the Cambodian government made considerable progress to address the lack of access to education for children with disabilities. A special education department was formed within the MoEYS in alignment with the recently established National Institute for Special Education (NISE) which aims to institutionalize special education and build a qualified teaching force for children with special educational needs.
We hope all of these combined offers will see more children with disabilities included in school and in society at large.