child pointing at image

If there were 600,000 people eager to learn and help you with a project, would you turn them away?

Apr 26, 2015

If there were 600,000 people eager to learn and help you with a project, would you turn them away?

That is the question I would ask of those who deem speech therapy a secondary need in the medical hierarchy of Cambodia. Here, you have a significant population that is willing to work hard, learn and contribute, but is being wasted simply because they were born different than most and have difficulty speaking.

Limited speech limits lives

What if you couldn’t give a great first impression? What if you, as the person reading this, couldn’t share all of the knowledge you’ve acquired up until now? What if you couldn’t even say your name?

These are all questions that people with speech disorders are forced to deal with every day, and for the Cambodians among them there are no answers. If Khmer children are unable to speak, they are deemed stupid by teachers and family alike and are basically left out of the natural growth process through no fault of their own.

There are no speech pathologists in Cambodia, and outside of a spare handful of NGOs bringing in foreign speech pathologists, Cambodians with difficulties speaking are left behind and largely left out.

Results of awareness and therapy

Among America’s three million stutterers and millions more with a variety of speech issues are some of the country’s leading thinkers and stars, their success due in no small part to their access to speech therapy and awareness of the issue.

Some of America’s best-known actors (Bruce WillisJulia Roberts, and Samuel L. Jackson, to name a few), athletes (Tiger WoodsBill Walton), writers (John Updike) and businessmen (Jack Welch) have overcome stutters to contribute to the US’s cultural milieu. Even US Vice President Joe Biden lived with a debilitating stutter into his 20s. Now imagine if all of these people were deemed “stupid” or “slow” before they ever had a chance to accomplish anything. Think about the political and social loss if these figures had never been given the chance to overcome their issues, much less become successful in the process.

Living Proof

As a stutterer myself, I understand this issue firsthand. I was lucky enough to have parents who refused to let my stutter be a reason why I couldn’t do anything just as well, if not better, than my fluent peers.

But I also know plenty of people who are suffering from the same neglect and labeling that most Cambodians with speech difficulty are forced to deal with. They get left behind in school because teachers are either not willing or don’t have the time to understand and help. They are pegged as failures by their parents as soon as the first words come sputtering out of their mouths.

Even though my speech is still a heavy work in progress (as many of my coworkers can attest), speech therapy was vital to my survival in the dog-eat-dog world that is the American school system, and it has been a critical asset in getting me this far.

Success through Therapy: Ling

It is easy to hear these things and nod your head, but seeing the speech therapy process in action is proof enough of its effectiveness.

Before speech therapy, Ling was a Cambodian 12-year-old who had never been to school because his cerebral palsy had made it so that he had trouble communicating. But with the help of CABDICO, a local NGO, and OIC, a project to establish speech therapy programs here, Ling was able to get speech therapy, gain access to some amount of fluent speech and finally attend school.

Now Ling is ranked second in his class, an astonishing feat from someone who was regarded as an afterthought by everyone around him.

Ling (right) learning with his disability worker Phearom

This is just one example of the kind of impact speech therapy and awareness of speech issues can have. Instead of closed doors and lost opportunities, Cambodia could foster a generation of leaders, writers and thinkers by giving these people a chance to succeed.

A person’s inability to express themselves should not be an indictment of the person’s intellectual capacity or fitness. There is no limit on what people can achieve when given an ounce of hope and a little understanding. And really, that’s all people with speech issues want: a chance to share in the human experience and a chance to contribute, no matter how long it may take them to speak.

First Published in Khmer Times.