Without fail, Hun Touch receives between five and 10 important phone calls each month. Those on the other end ask if he will take in their children, and Mr Touch tries to accept each time, adding more children to his already crowded classrooms.
As the head teacher and director of the Phnom Penh-based Rabbit School, Mr Touch runs one of only four NGOs in the country that educate children and youth with intellectual disabilities. Because of this, Mr Touch finds it difficult to turn these phone calls away.
“These children need some place… not anybody can provide these services to children with disability,” he said.
But after more than 10 years of lobbying with the government, Mr Touch, along with the members of about 40 NGOs that work with children with disabilities, is anticipating a significant increase in education services for these children.
In March 2008, the Education Ministry passed the Education for Children with Disabilities Policy, which is intended to increase the enrollment of children with disabilities in public schools by increasing institutional capacity to meet their needs, such as training more teachers in special education and improving accessibility features in schools.
“The main purpose of having this work is because [we are] thinking about sustainability. So if this service is just provided by NGOs, it can’t be sustainable… It should belong to the government,” said Om Sokhim, education program manager for NGO Volunteer Service Overseas and former deputy executive director of the Disability Action Council, a Social Affairs Ministry office that coordinates disability issues.
A 2009 study conducted by the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization reported that 24 percent of children with disabilities surveyed in four provinces had never attended school. In contrast, about 97 percent of non-disabled children are matriculated in primary school, according to Mhean Saroeun, chief of the Education Ministry’s special education office.
As the implementation strategy for the ECWD Policy, the Education Ministry developed a master plan for 2009-11, which outlines specific steps to achieving the goals of the policy. So far, a basic screening checklist has been developed to identify five categories of disability-visual, auditory, speech, mobility and intellectual. Additionally, the Education Ministry, in collaboration with NGOs, has developed a basic training course for in-service teachers to educate children with disabilities, and is in the process of developing a similar course for pre-service teachers.
The ECWD Policy is intended to support the government initiative to provide education for all children by 2015, but experts in the disability sector are skeptical of the feasibility of this time frame.
“I think the major challenge is human resource… At the moment, we don’t have many teachers who are qualified to teach children with disabilities,” Mr Sokhim of VSO said.
In an April 2010 report by CDPO, the organization noted that the master plan for the ECWD Policy calls for speech therapy for students with difficulty speaking, but there are currently no speech therapists available in Cambodia who can deliver these services to children.
Despite skepticism over the deadline, advocates in the disability sector remain optimistic.
“We have to continue our efforts and the government and ministry have to keep same level of willingness and commitment to try to reach this objective,” said Auray Aun, general director of Krousar Thmey, an NGO that educates blind and deaf children. “It’s clear that we [NGOs] cannot work alone.”