Eighth Deaf Day Celebrates a Poorly Understood Community

Although educational and social opportunities in Cambodia’s deaf population have improved in the past decade, 98 percent of deaf people have never met another deaf person or learned Cambodian sign language, experts say.

In an effort to bolster awareness of Cambodia’s deaf population, members of the deaf community gathered in Phnom Penh on Tues­day morning to celebrate Cam­bodia’s eighth annual International Deaf Day.

“Deaf Day is trying to expose the hearing society [to the deaf community] to help them recognize that they need to be equal,” said Charles Dittmeier, Maryknoll Project Director with the Deaf Development Program.

Deafness, Dittmeier said, tends to be misdiagnosed or misrepresented as a mental disability in Cambodia because deaf people often cannot speak clearly and they do not have the same exposure as hearing people to language and knowledge.

“Deafness is an invisible disabil­ity,” he said.

The Deaf Development Prog­ram, along with the NGO Krousar Thmey, opened schools in 1997 to provide a basic education in subjects such as Cambodian sign language and job skills to deaf adults who never had the opportunity to go to school.

These schools, which operate in Phnom Penh as well as Kampot, Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Cham provinces, serve only 1,500 of the 51,000 deaf people living in Cambodia.

But the number of NGOs serving the deaf community has risen, Dittmeier said, as has government support of the deaf population.

“Deaf Day is very important for Cambodians,” said Social Affairs Minister Ith Samheng, during the International Deaf Day celebration.

The Ministry of Social Affairs has submitted a draft law to the Nation­al Assembly that would protect the rights of Cambodia’s disabled, in­cluding the deaf, he said.

In addition, 11 rehabilitation institutes and 10 vocational training in­s­titutes have been established in Cam­bodia to train disabled people, Ith Samheng said.

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