For more than 30 years, Svay Simorn, a social worker in Phnom Penh, has cared for her daughter and grandson, both of whom are mentally disabled. Over time, she has experienced discrimination and isolation.
“Ordinary people overlook the difficulties that disabled people, especially people with mental disabilities, carry their whole life,” she said. “Whenever I go to a party, I’m told to leave my child to eat alone some other place. This is a really painful thing for me and my family.”
Svay Simorn said she cannot let her daughter or grandson out of her sight. There are no schools where she can send her daughter, who is called by many “Mee Chkuot,” or Crazy Woman.
Her story is not uncommon. Cambodia has little cultural tolerance for the disabled, either mentally or physically, and few public institutions to help. The disabled in Cambodia have difficulty finding jobs or access to education, and many live in poverty—despite a law specifically designed to help the disabled that is six years old this month.
The 2009 law was meant to protect the rights of the disabled and prevent discrimination against them, and has provisions to keep them from being excluded from education enrollment or scholarships. But many obstacles for the disabled remain.
“Discrimination, lack of job opportunities, and being unable to access education or information are still the main challenges for disable person and families,” Ngin Sao Roth, executive direct for Cambodia Disabled People’s Organization, said recently, at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the law. More support from both the families of the disabled and society in general is needed, he said.
For the mentally or physically disabled, Cambodia can be a hard place. Phon Treng, 45, lost his left leg in combat in Cambodia’s civil war, and is forced to beg for a living. The father of two spends 12 hours a day near tourist attractions, hoping for money from foreigners.
Sitting in a wheel chair recently near the Royal Palace, he said he had heard of the 2009 law. “But I haven’t really received any benefits from it,” he said. “Without my own effort to feed myself and earn money, I would not survive.”
Toch Channy, director-general for technical affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said the government is working to improve services for the disabled, including the formation of an “action council” for them. A foundation has been formed to provide between $5 and $10 a month for the disabled, he said. But he admitted there is no way right now to know whether a person is legally eligible.
Still, he said, the 2009 law has benefited them “a lot already,” providing, for example, handicap accessibility in government buildings. “But they only know they have been helped when they see money.”