Speech Disorder in Cambodia


How has Cambodia gone so long without this therapy?

Apr 19, 2015

For more than 600,000 people in Cambodia with speech and swallowing disorders, assistance and solutions seem distant and even nonexistent at times.

Outside of a few speech therapists from the UK and US working for local NGOs, there are no Cambodian speech therapists and no college programs educating physical therapists on how to deal with these issues.

OIC Cambodia is trying to change that.

Pilot project

Helping people with disabilities throughout the Kingdom for many years, the Cambodian NGO Capacity Building for Development Cooperation (CABDICO) realized that almost 70 percent of people they work with could use some form of speech therapy.

With no local speech therapists and training programs, they turned to Weh Yeoh, an Australian development worker with physiotherapy qualifications.

He started a pilot project with CABDICO that gave their community therapists some tools to help people with speech disorder in Cambodia . OIC (an acronym for ‘Oh, I See!’) grew out of that to directly address speech related issues throughout the country.

“There’s been a big lag behind speech therapy arriving here, and the top four disabilities among children are non-physical,” Mr. Yeoh said. “We’re still a little bit in the dark ages when it comes to finding and dealing with people who have these issues here.”

After the pilot program, an independent evaluation asked people involved about their thoughts on the program. One of the most common things said was, “How has Cambodia gone so long without this therapy?”

Locally-led angle

OIC is trying to solve this problem by raising awareness about speech and swallowing disorders in communities and schools, while making speech therapy a legitimate profession for Cambodians.

If compared to the ratio of speech therapists to people with speech disorders in the US, Cambodia would need 6,000 therapists to handle the population in need.

A few NGOs have brought speech therapists from other countries to Cambodia, but OIC is approaching the project from a different angle, hoping to eventually have enough locally-based speech therapists to teach a course on it at a university and train a new generation of therapists.

“Instead of bringing services that Cambodia doesn’t have, and then leaving when we think our work is done, we’re setting up speech therapy as a locally-lead profession,” said Emma Blint, fundraising manager for OIC.

They have already set up a partnership with an Australian university to build the capacity for speech therapy courses and majors at schools in Cambodia.

They hope to have a university speech therapy course up and running by 2020.

Unseen, Unheard

Many children with speech and swallowing disorders don’t go to school. Even those who do are at a disadvantage, because most teachers don’t know how to handle the issues these children have.

“A lot of these children have communication problems, but their intelligence is normal and yet their potential is not being tapped because they’re being written off, just simply because they have communication issues,” Mr. Yeoh said.

Just the awareness about what speech therapy is and what speech disorders are has changed how many families view their children who have these issues.

“Without the knowledge of what speech therapy is or what a communication problem is, they’re not really ever found, they’re just invisible,” Mr Yeoh said.OIC has already seen progress when it comes to community-based disability therapists. Many of those who were involved in the pilot project have said it changed the way they deal with their patients and improved their ability to help them.

“It has made me more confident in my ability to help these children, their families, teachers and communities,” said Chea Phearom, a community rehabilitation officer with CABDICO since 2006.

“I was able to give these kids the confidence to speak up in school, and let their parents and teachers know that there are ways to interact with them that can help and improve how you teach them.”

OIC has started a fundraising campaign, called ‘Unseen, Unheard’, ahead of a meeting with the UN and Cambodian government officials, hoping to use the stories of 20 children they’ve helped to illustrate how urgent a need speech therapy is.

“Speech therapy is about helping people communicate, but it’s also just about helping people be active members of their communities,” Mr. Yeoh said.

First Published in Khmer Times.