child plays with bubbles

600,000 – 1 in 25 people – needed help

Jan 1, 2015

Would you help?

Weh Yeoh, a disability development worker from Australia who currently lives in Cambodia, found himself in this exact situation.

An estimated 600,000 people have a communication or swallowing disability in Cambodia, preventing them from living the full life they are entitled to.

Speaking with friends and family, eating a meal, attending school and finding a job are almost near impossible, and yet, when you turn to the health system for help, there is almost no speech therapy or appropriate services to support these people.

This glaring gap stumped Weh when he first arrived in Phnom Penh almost three years ago.

“I remember asking myself – how can 1 in 25 people be affected by this issue and there be no one (and I mean no one) fighting for it?”

“Why is no one helping?,” he questioned.

A quick glance at the statistics for HIV/AIDS will show you that about 1 in 26 people globally have contracted the virus and more than $65 million has been invested to treat and prevent the epidemic.

But why not the same help and funding for communication and swallowing disabilities that effect so many lives?

“Because these disorders are not a physical disability, people find it hard to see them as equally worthy of our attention as more visually obvious disabilities, such as landmine caused disabilities which are very common here in Cambodia,” explained Weh.

“It’s also difficult to explain and doesn’t fall under a sexy label like many other disabilities. It can affect speaking, hearing, and cognitive abilities, and as such, is difficult to ‘package’.”

Working for Cabdico when he first arrived in Phnom Penh, a Cambodian-run organisation supporting people with disabilities and vulnerable people, Weh witnessed daily the frustrating restraints of a limited health system that was not adequately resourced to train professionals to properly support men, women and children suffering from communication and swallowing disorders.

“I was working with local Cambodian health workers who were adeptly committed to helping their patients, but were met with great challenge because they could treat only so much without being trained in speech therapy,” Weh said.

“I saw this time and time again.”

“We sadly saw children die from choking because they could not swallow properly. Perhaps these children would still be alive today if speech therapy was made available,” he mused.

Learning from his experiences of working for both international and grassroot disability organisations in Australia, Vietnam, China and India over the past 10 years, Weh saw an opportunity to directly collaborate with Cambodian health workers to shake up the system and address the critical need for speech therapy across the country.

In June of last year, OIC Cambodia was born, a program centred on the belief that communication is integral to our experience of life as human beings.

“Communication is the means by which we connect, learn and exchange with others. It’s at the heart of being human. It doesn’t get much more important than that,” Weh shared.

The aim of the project is to provide crucial training in speech therapy throughout the country, and to graduate the first generation of Cambodian speech therapists from a Cambodian university.

It is a project designed to invest in and support Cambodians bring about change for Cambodians.

“There are countless organisations and programs working on disability issues in Cambodia but the problem is, no one is working together. The problems at the international development level is mirrored here. Organisations work in silos. There is no concerted effort or genuine collaboration. This is what OIC hopes to break.”

“Education, advocacy and co-ordination are our three central strategies to working towards a Cambodia where these 600,000 people receive the help they need to be able to communicate and live full and happy lives,” Weh added.

Funded $25,000 by Speech Pathology Australia to roll out a 12-month pilot program, OIC have trained 15 Cambodian disability workers in speech therapy who are currently working with 100 children with a communication or swallowing disorder.

“The success stories like Ling, the twelve-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who couldn’t communicate and now is number two in his class, and that of Phearom, the Cambodian disability worker who turned down another job that would have seen her salary double, have reinforced how important this work is.

Weh explained that the lessons learnt from this pilot will inform the next phase of the program. “We plan to scale up our efforts and work with 200 Cambodian health workers and hospitals to help treat 1000 adults and children next.”

“We are also working with an Australian university to design and appropriate a university curriculum for speech therapists in Cambodia.”

Reflecting on the role of foreign development workers such as himself, Weh says: “Our role as foreigners working in this field should be to help local people do their jobs better. To give people the resources to be effective… Nonsensically, we restrict funds so that local organisations cannot spend them on staff salaries [and as a result, hamper] great things from happening.”

“This has to change and hopefully this is the start.”

What if development work was done differently? What if we funded a community instead of a perceived need? What if we disrupted the system and restored the power balance back to the local community, and entrusted them with the responsibility to help themselves?

This is what OIC aims to do. Support and invest in Cambodians so they can bring about change for Cambodians.

First Published in Paper Planes Connect.