The disability draft law—which calls for public and private enterprises to make themselves handicap-accessible as well as recruit disabled employees—finally received approval Friday from the Council of Ministers.
Activists have heralded the approval as a major step forward in the treatment of disabled citizens in Cambodia, while also saying it highlights how much work remains to make the draft law’s stipulations a reality.
If passed by the National Assembly and Senate, the draft law, which has been batting around ministries for about a decade, will be Cambodia’s first legislation pertaining to its approximately 660,000 disabled citizens, most of whom are victims of traffic accidents and landmines, according to the Disability Action Council, an umbrella organization of government and NGO groups.
Ministry of Social Affairs Secretary of State Ung Tea Seam said Sunday that the draft law—which covers health care, education, vocational training and employment for the disabled—is aimed at curbing discrimination.
“We want to give them dignity. We want to encourage them not based on sympathy but through their qualifications,” he said.
Under the 60-article draft law, public institutions are required to hire disabled people. If they fail to do so without good reason, the salary of the director or minister will be reduced.
Private enterprises are also required to take on disabled staff members, though they have the opportunity to make a donation if they are unable to do so. If they fail to make the requested donation, however, they will be issued a fine or face court action, said Ung Tea Seam.
The specifics of quotas and fines will be decided via open discussions with all stakeholders and outlined in subsequent legislation, he added.
“We cannot force people to accept those that are not qualified,” Ung Tea Seam said.
The draft law also stipulates that public buildings be made handicap-accessible-including entrances, bathrooms and parking facilities-but allows existing establishments a five-year grace period in which to meet the new requirement.
Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said Sunday that he does not foresee quotas presenting a problem for the majority of factories, provided they are reasonable.
“Surely any enterprise can employ disabled people,” he said, adding that many disabled people would be able to prepare thread or conduct quality assessments.
Ngin Saorath, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, which first began pushing for the law in 1996, said the Council of Ministers’ stamp on the law comes as very good news.
“We all disabled people are very pleased,” he said. “It’s what we were looking for.”
Cambodia signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities last October, but has yet to ratify the convention, he said, adding that ratification pales in comparison to what a national law can accomplish.
“If it passes…I think there will be a lot of change,” he said.
Jan Nye, community development adviser at disability rights NGO Cambodia Trust, said the new law provides a framework within which disabled people can seek legal recourse, something they have hitherto been denied.
“If [disabled people] find that they are discriminated against in health care or education, there’s a law now to protect them…. There is now a pathway to develop policies specific to Cambodia,” she said.
Under the new draft law, schools have to make themselves handicap-accessible, she said, which is a small thing that can have a potentially huge impact.
“We went to a school with a child in a wheelchair, and there was no way to get into the building,” she said. “There is nothing for them.”