Weh Yeoh at United Nations

Cambodia needs to prioritise speech therapy

Jul 15, 2015

On Monday, I addressed the Cambodian Government and its United Nations partners on the need to develop the speech therapy profession in Cambodia. Speech therapy is the biggest gap in basic health services for people in Cambodia.

One in 25 people are estimated to need this therapy. Yet there is not one Cambodian university-trained speech therapist to help people, often children, who need it.

Srey Ran is a 12-year-old girl whose parents believed that school would be too big a challenge for her. As a result, she usually stayed on the farm to help her family.

Srey Ran was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that hinders her speaking and language skills. Often, children like her are left behind as their peers go off to learn at school. Because Srey Ran’s disability means that she looks different and has difficulty expressing and receiving communication, supporting her to participate in the community requires ongoing commitment and resources, including speech therapy.

Speech therapy, a new concept in Cambodia, is a profession that aims to treat people with communication and swallowing disabilities.

For communication, think of a child who has autism or Down syndrome, who communicates differently. Or think of a child with an intellectual disability that may be non-verbal. Those who have a communication disability are often unable to participate in their community, go to school or get jobs, have friends or even connect with the world around them. Communication is a fundamental part of being human.

Those with swallowing disabilities, often as a result of a stroke or brain injury, do not have the strength or control to get food and liquid into the stomach. Instead, food and liquid will often go into the lungs, where they risk developing pneumonia. This population is 13 times more likely to die young as a result.

In Cambodia, tens of thousands of people die unnecessarily due to a lack of speech therapy.

Srey Ran (left) with her friend

Although Srey Ran regularly received care from her community worker Chhean, an employee of a local NGO CABDICO, Chhean was unable to address Srey Ran’s difficulty with communication. That is, until she received basic speech therapy training as part of the first pilot project in speech therapy conducted in Cambodia.

One day, as part of our regular follow up visits with children from our pilot project, we discovered that Srey Ran was not home. Considering that Srey Ran usually spent her days on the farm, we were immediately worried. Where could she possibly be?

After a few moments of concern, her mother informed us that Srey Ran was fine. She was simply attending school. She was able to go to school for the first time because of speech therapy.

If we can get children like Srey Ran to school as part of our pilot project, with very little resources, anything is possible for the rest of the children with communication disabilities in Cambodia. Getting a child like her into a mainstream school is much more complex than simply giving her a backpack or a bicycle. Her communication disability requires subtle behavior change on behalf of everyone else in her community.

Out of the 13 children interviewed in our pilot project, three of them went to school for the first time because of speech therapy. This is something to be proud of, but the battle is far from over.

There are hundreds and thousands of other children out there like Srey Ran who could benefit from speech therapy in much the same way. Her story teaches us that with the right support, anything is possible.

Monday’s meeting with the United Nations and the Cambodian Government marked a significant moment to address the giant gap in speech therapy services in Cambodia. It was the first time where decision makers in this country gathered together to recognize this need.

I’m happy to report the speech was well received. There was a lot of recognition to work together. From here, we need to see commitment from decision makers to work together in real ways to address this gap.

For the sake of the 1 in 25 people like Srey Ran who need speech therapy, let’s hope they do.

Weh Yeoh is founder and managing director of OIC Cambodia, which aims to establish speech therapy in Cambodia for those with communication and swallowing disorders.

First Published in Khmer Times.