volunteer teaches child

ABC radio interview : Project tackles speech problems in Cambodia

Nov 14, 2014


Mark Colvin
: They’re the kinds of problems you might never see with your own eyes, but in a poor country like Cambodia, a child with difficulties swallowing or talking can all too easily end up in a life of utter poverty.

It’s not a small problem; an estimated 600,000 children are in that category, and their lives could be changed with the kind of speech therapy that’s common in Australia.

There are no university trained speech therapists in Cambodia, and the Australian ‘OIC Cambodia’ aims to change that.

It launches in Melbourne this evening, and its founder Weh Yeoh spoke to me this afternoon.

Weh Yeoh: The kind of conditions that we’re talking about, communication and swallowing, they’re really capsules for a lot of different types of impairments and disorders. So it’s a case-by-case basis.

But I guess the important thing is to know that even across the spectrum of disorders that we’re talking about, from not so severe all the way to very severe, there is some sort of assistance that speech therapists can give. And this is something that we take for granted in our country.

However in other countries like Cambodia, that really doesn’t have this kind of safety net for people like this. And this is something that we’re trying to address.

Mark Colvin: And what are the consequences, I mean if you can’t talk then presumably down the line it’s harder to get an education and harder eventually to get a job.

Weh Yeoh: Absolutely yeah. And I think there’s one really good story about this which is a child that I met two years ago in Cambodia in a very poor part of rural Cambodia, and his name is Ookling (phonetic), and at the time he was ten years old when I met him and this child has an obvious disability, he couldn’t communicate well with his family, his speech was very slurred, he wasn’t able to bathe himself. And without exaggerating this kind of child, his only way of earning an income in the future is through begging.

But because we were able to train a community worker, who worked closely with the child in speech therapy, she worked very, very hard with him for a few months and now not only is he going to school for the first time, he’s also coming second in his class.

So this is an illustration of how communication is really, really important to get children into schools and give them an opportunity to live full lives.

Mark Colvin: So what you’re trying to do with your launch tonight, is not to raise money to send speech therapists to Cambodia, but to raise money to train Cambodian speech therapists?

Weh Yeoh: Absolutely. I mean I think it’s very important for us to reflect on what is our role as Australians in best supporting a project like this.

And I think one of the advantages of the way that we’re going about it – and it comes back to our name, OIC, the Cambodia Project – that project aspect of the name is really about having a defined life cycle for the project, so that one day we can walk away and we can say OK the job is done.

And the only way to achieve this is really to have Cambodian people learning from other Cambodian people. So it’s things like setting up a training program, which is the first major thing that we’re trying to achieve, where Cambodians can learn from other Cambodians about speech therapy.

And then secondly setting up a university course, so that we can train the first generation of Cambodian speech therapists.

Mark Colvin: And why would people trust you with their money, I mean what have you done in terms of a pilot program, what is your track record so far?

Weh Yeoh: Yeah it’s a really good question, there are so many great causes out there to support.

We’ve done a pilot program, which is the first of its in Cambodia. So we trained local Cambodians on speech therapy and then we got them to use that knowledge in the communities that they work in. And we did that for 15 Cambodian health workers and then they use that knowledge for 100 children.

And out of that process we’re hoping to evaluate that independently, which will show us exactly what worked and what didn’t work. And then from that our idea is that once we know about the results of the pilot, we can scale up and go larger.

We’re trying to do something here, we’re pioneering something which has never been done before. So we need to go stage by stage, make sure we reflect on the lessons and evaluate really stringently all the way along.

Mark Colvin: Weh Yeoh, the founder of the OIC Cambodia, which launches in Melbourne this evening.

First Published in ABC News.