Weh with Tai

Founderitis can be a huge problem if left unchecked

May 7, 2015

Weh Yeoh is the founder of a project tackling extremely common communication and swallowing disorders in Cambodia, but to be frank, Weh rejects the trophy title and instead considers himself more of an ‘anti-founder’. “We’ve all seen founder’s syndrome – or founderitis – at play. Everyone remembers the Steve Jobs, the Richard Bransons, the Somaly Mams. We identify with organisations through the person who represents them. And yet, founderitis can be a huge problem if left unchecked,” Weh explains.

A disability development worker from Australia who has spent the past 10 years working for both international and grassroots organisations around the world, this June, Weh will speak in front of the UN and Cambodian government – the first opportunity of its kind – to highlight the critical need for speech therapy across the nation. To give you an idea of just how ‘critical’ this need is, there are more than 7,000 speech therapists working in hospitals, schools and clinics across Australia. In Cambodia, there is not one.

In fact, an estimated 600,000 people – that’s 1 in 25 Cambodians – have a communication or swallowing disorder preventing them from living the full life they are entitled to and yet, there is almost no speech therapy or appropriate services to support these people. mDay-to-day activities like speaking with friends and family, eating a meal, attending school and finding a job can be near impossible. Sadly, children have also died because of difficulties swallowing properly. Weh remarked “I remember asking myself when I first arrived in Phnom Penh three years ago, how can 1 in 25 people be affected by this issue and there be no one fighting for it?”

In June of last year, OIC Cambodia was born, a project centred on the belief that communication is integral to our experience of life as human beings. OIC is providing the first comprehensive training in speech therapy across the country, and graduating the first generation of Cambodian speech therapists from a Cambodian university in 2020. Weh proposed: “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?”

As part of a campaign called ‘Unseen, Unheard’, OIC will tell the stories of 20 children who desperately need speech therapy in Cambodia through mixed media that will be presented before the UN and the government. With additional funding assistance, they will engage doctors, teachers, and local government officials to help them understand why Cambodia can no longer neglect children with speech problems as well as work to shift engrained attitudes within local communities, families and schools. With the support of the Australian government and Speech Pathology Australia, OIC has trained 15 Cambodian disability workers in speech therapy who are currently working with 100 children with a communication and swallowing disorder.

Next is to scale up efforts. Weh explains: “soon we will work with 200 Cambodian health workers and hospitals to treat 1000 adults and children.”

Why are communication disabilities not considered ‘sexy’? An odd question, but it’s the truth. For every 1000 people in Cambodia, 3 have malaria, 6 have HIV and 40 have a communication or swallowing disorder. A quick look at the funding will show you that more than $58 million is invested yearly for the treatment of HIV in Cambodia. Why then is the situation so very different for communication and swallowing disorders?  Weh explains: “Because these types of disorders are not a physical disability, people find it hard to see them as equally worthy of our attention as more visually obvious disabilities. Instead, communication disorders affect speaking, hearing, and cognitive abilities, and as such, are difficult to ‘package’ despite being equally in need of both local and global support.”

First Published in Future Challenges.