Blind ambition

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From a refugee camp to the Ministry of Education: the extraordinary evolution of a Cambodian SEN programme

Conflict-scarred Cambodia emerged from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 with no formal structures in place to educate the country’s deaf or blind children. This left an estimated one million people with disabilities in Cambodia – 250,000 of whom are deaf or hard of hearing and 170,000 who are blind or visually impaired – at a permanent disadvantage, excluded from the national school system and wider society.

Eleven years later, in a Cambodian refugee camp at the Cambodia/Thailand border, Krousar Thmey (“New Family”) was established to provide deaf, blind and disadvantaged children with education and social support. It remains the only Cambodian organisation to offer a comprehensive special education programme for deaf or blind children.

Reaching out

Originally founded by Benoît Duchâteau-Arminjon, a French national, the charity was eventually localised and is now run by and for Cambodians according to each child’s traditions and beliefs.

With a head office in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, programmes are run across 14 provinces, including five special schools to meet the needs of deaf or blind children from kindergarten through to high school, and 36 integrated classes in rural areas.

In 2012 alone, almost 1,000 deaf or blind children enrolled in the organisation’s special education programme. Krousar Thmey works with over 2,500 children and their families each year.

The organisation also welcomes hundreds of pupils to its Khmer arts and culture school each year, introducing the children to traditional dance, drawing, music, sculpture and shadow theatre.

Looking to the future

Crucial to Krousar Thmey’s success is its insistence of the normalcy and dignity of everyday life for children in their programmes, and the organisation does a great deal of work to ensure that former students go on to university or into employment. Career counselling departments help young adults to access higher education, training, apprenticeships and permanent employment. Braille workshops and sign language committees adapt learning resources for universities, and Krousar Thmey has successfully introduced live signing to national TV news broadcasts.

In recognition of outstanding progressive work to educate the country’s deaf or blind children, the Government of Cambodia now calls for all Krousar Thmey employees to be registered as official government employees.

However, while Cambodia has enjoyed relatively rapid development in the past three decades – including exceeding the Millennium Development Goal target associated with education, combating extreme poverty and hunger – the country remains poor, with its education system severely limited. In an attempt to guarantee long-term sustainability and integration across the country, the entire special education programme will transition to the country’s Ministry of Education by 2020.

On International Day for Persons with Disabilities, in December 2013, Krousar Thmey was named as one of the Stars Impact Award winners for Education in Asia-Pacific. Krousar Thmey will receive US$100,000 in unrestricted funding as well as additional capacity building support from the Foundation.

Stars Foundation annually bestows awards on outstanding local organisations that are both effective and well-managed.

Unrestricted funding is imperative for local organisations in order for them to remain resilient through challenging funding cycles. Krousar Thmey will direct part of its Award funding to continue to strengthen and grow its special education programme, and will also use some of it to provide incentives for teachers working in their schools.

Sem’s story

Sem Sophaleng, a 20-year-old Grade 11 student, lost his eyesight to untreated measles in 1996. Now, in his seventh year at Krousar Thmey’s school for deaf and blind children he remarks on how much the centre has helped him: “Krousar Thmey has literally changed my life and attitude towards blindness. Here, I have access to the same curriculum offered to non-disabled children. I have friends – both inside and outside”, he says.

Sem enjoys traditional Khmer literature and volunteers on a Krousar Thmey awareness raising exhibition called Seeing in the Dark, allowing visitors to experience 15 minutes of complete darkness.

Sem is trying to focus on his English language skills to open up opportunities for future employment. He would like to become a teacher and earn money to be independent.

Nhem’s story

Nhem does her homework like other students when she gets home. She can read and write and type essays on her computer.

Despite being born blind, she studies English literature at Pannasastra University and participates, like any undergraduate, in class and in exams. All she needs to do is ask for audio files from her teachers. The University has an array of learning tools and texts converted into audio format so that young visually impaired students such as Nhem can attend and study.

Nhem wants to do a Master’s degree abroad and become a University lecturer in English. She has already travelled to Japan on a youth leadership programme.

Further information

Ashley Johnson and Isabel Leigh are from the Stars Foundation, which was established by Al Dabbagh Group in 2001 as its global philanthropic arm to improve the lives of children and their communities globally:
www.starsfoundation.org.uk

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