Tired and desperately seeking food during the Khmer Rouge regime, Hem Phang and 10 others cautiously hiked across Battambang province to reach refugee camps in Thailand. Near the border, he stepped on a land mine. He survived, but his left leg was blown off.
“I was very upset when I knew my leg was cut,” Hem Phang said at his school, the Khmer Vocational and Training Association, in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district, where he now trains students to fix electronics. “I thought to myself: ‘OK, I am disabled now. What can I do with my life?’”
There are many stories like Hem Phang’s in Cambodia, which was left riddled with land mines and unexploded ordnance from decades of war. Disease and car accidents add to the more than 200,000, or about 1.5 percent of the population, afflicted with disabilities.
Finding a job is hard enough for those blessed with fully functional bodies. But for the disabled, finding a job can be “extremely difficult,” said Long Ly, an official at the National Center of Disabled Persons. They must fight through stigma, superstition, skill requirements and outright discrimination to land work. Despite a number of aid groups dedicated to fighting these barriers, progress has been slow.
At the NCDP, a project called the Information and Referral Services Program started in 1998 to help the disabled find work with local employers. Of the 2,300 disabled persons who have registered with the program, only 399 have found jobs.
The stagnant economy is largely responsible for that low number. Other reasons include the low quality of skills provided by training centers for the disabled, the lack of a law protecting disabled workers’ rights and, again, blatant discrimination.
While disabled people have found work through NCDP at garment factories, Caltex and MobiTel, some employers have unabashedly proclaimed their bias.
But FedEx, a multinational shipping company, has hired three disabled workers through the NCDP project. Two work in customer service and one assists the company’s accountants. “They perform their jobs just as well as other staff,” said Richard Ong, operations manager at FedEx.
Though employer discrimination is a huge obstacle, experts say lack of skills is the largest roadblock for disabled workers. The country has a number of institutions that train the disabled in carpentry, sewing and fixing motorcycles. Though a few aid groups teach English and computer skills, more are needed, Ly Long said.
“The quality of training is not good enough to meet employer demand,” he said. “These groups should not continue the same way of training just to get money from the government. They need to ask what it is employers want, and that is mostly a good understanding of English and computer skills.”
Wat Than Skills Training Center, run by World Vision, teaches the disabled English, computer and accounting skills. The center holds 37 students at once, each of whom completes an 18-month course. About 95 percent of its graduates find work, said Sarah Bearup, a World Vision official working with the program.
“Finding students is not the problem,” she said. “The problem is meeting the need.”
Wat Than is overwhelmed with applications because of its curriculum. Besides teaching skills, the center also attempts to build students’ confidence. But it’s not enough to focus simply on the students, Bearup said. The center also works on lobbying businesses and universities to hire more disabled people or give them internships.
One nonprofit organization that has hired Wat Than graduates is Digital Divide Data, which provides data entry services for local and international clients. About half of DDD’s 120 employees are disabled; orphans, abused women and the rural poor comprise the rest.
“Usually when people see a disabled person they feel pity,” said Savvy Him, a marketing and operations consultant at DDD. “We need to take pity out of the equation to get employers to hire more disabled people.”
Job prospects are slowly improving, she added, though much remains to be done.
“We need to educate the public, as well as educate disabled people, to let them know: ‘Yes, you can do this,’” Savvy Him said. “We need companies to join and buy this idea. Yet getting them on the bandwagon is very difficult.”
In an effort to link the private sector to the NGOs working with disabled people, a group called the Business Advisory Council was formed a few years ago. Aid groups and local businessmen meet once a month to figure out ways to provide job opportunities to more disabled people. While advocates say the council has opened doors, its scope tends to be limited by the stagnant economy.
“About 150,000 people enter the job market every year,” said Senaka Fernando, president of the British Business Association and a member of the council. “Finding jobs for those people is difficult, let alone those with disabilities. The job market is not increasing at the same rate as those needing jobs. It’s not so much a problem of finding jobs for the disabled as dealing with an economic reality.”
In addition to the Business Advisory Council, donors have also supported attempts to use the private sector to support NGOs working with the disabled.
The Mekong Private Sector Development Facility, an initiative of the World Bank’s private sector arm, has provided assistance to DDD and Joom Noon, an NGO set up in 1996 that employs mostly disabled people to produce hand-woven silk scarves. Joom Noon, which started operations with just five workers, now employs more than 70 people and is expected to be a fully independent business by the end of the year.
“The private sector provides one set of tools and discipline that offers ways to sustainably support groups that help the disadvantaged,” said Adam Sack, country director of MPDF.
“If they can provide decent jobs and decent pay, they are in control. They can determine how long they help disabled people. They no longer need to rely on donors. It’s using the free market to help disadvantaged groups.”
A draft law “The Rights of Persons With Disabilities” is waiting to be debated in the National Assembly. If approved, the law will guarantee the disabled the same rights as able-bodied people.
Employer discrimination would be outlawed, all hospitals would provide the disabled with free health care, future public buildings would be accessible to those with disabilities and tax breaks would be given to employers “who agree to include disabled people in their investment and business scheme.”
“In the meantime, Cambodia has no law protecting the rights of people with disabilities,” said Ngin Saoraph, chairman of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization. “We want to see the law adopted and job opportunities created.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself disabled, called for the law to be sent to the National Assembly and passed back in June 2002.
“Twenty years ago, not only did I lose an eye, but half of my body was nearly paralyzed,” he said in 2002. The disabled may be “disabled in body, but not in their mind or heart,” he added. “They can work in administration, as accountants, as computer typists or in other fields.”
For Hem Phang, the man who stepped on a landmine while fleeing to a refugee camp in Thailand, repairing electronic goods proved to be his calling. After spending six months in a hospital, where he was fitted with a prosthetic leg, he studied electronics with nine others at the Sa’it refugee camp in Thailand.
It wasn’t easy. Though he learned how to fix electronics—as well as to speak Thai and some English—Hem Phang likened the refugee camp to a zoo. The group was fenced in and was punished for trying to escape. Hem Phang wanted to get out and see his family.
He had the chance to leave the camp in the early 1980s, when many refugees, including many of his friends, were resettled in the US. Hem Phang stayed in the camp, however, because his leg was still hurting him.
Soon after, he learned that the US was no longer accepting refugees, and all those in the camp would have to return to Cambodia.
“I can say I am an unlucky person,” Hem Phang said. “I am disappointed, because so many of my friends are living in the US.”
Despite his misgivings, he managed to carve out a decent life in the camp. He got married and invested many hours learning about electronics from his Thai teacher. He eventually moved from student to teacher and, by the time refugees started to return to Cambodia in 1985, he had taught 135 disabled refugees how to repair electronics.
When he returned to Cambodia, Hem Phang worked for NGOs teaching the disabled how to repair electronics before opening his own school in 1998. Since the school opened, it has had 170 graduates. Ninety-four now have jobs, he said, at garment factories, printing houses and aid groups.
“The school is my life,” he said. “My dream is that many disabled people can come without paying.”
Right now, he can take only 10 students at a time, and seven of them pay the full price of $200 for four months of training, though he makes exceptions if a student is very poor. The seven paying students allow him to take on three other disadvantaged students to train for free.
“The teacher is very skilled,” said Oun Chanthorn, 20, one of Hem Phang’s nonpaying students who lost his leg in a car accident on Russian Boulevard four years ago. “I want to open my own electronic repair shop one day.”
In an effort to raise money for the school, Hem Phang recently mailed a letter to Hun Sen asking him to pay the school’s $200 per month rent bill.
“If Hun Sen can pay the rent, I can accept more disabled people who cannot afford to pay,” he said.