Only a tiny fraction of Cambodians were counted as disabled during the general population census of 2008, prompting concern yesterday from disability rights groups that the needs of disabled people will be underestimated and services will suffer as a result.
Only 1.4 percent of Cambodians are now considered disabled, according to the census results, which were released Monday. That would appear to be a giant drop from the 4.7 percent figure estimated in the government’s socioeconomic survey of 2004.
Nhem Sareth, information and communications officer for the Disabled Action Coalition, said yesterday that he was confused by the census results.
“People get in danger every month because of landmines. How can the numbers go down?”
The likely answer, according to those involved in the census, is that what it means to be disabled underwent a massive change in the four years between the two counts.
Under the new definition from the National Institute of Statistics, there are only five categories of disability: in seeing, speaking, hearing, movement and mentality. The criteria for those categories are fairly stringent—someone with only one eye would not be considered disabled, nor would a person missing fingers or toes. The 2004 socio-economic survey, on the other hand, included nine categories of disability, and was more inclusive.
“The definition difference is huge,” explained NIS Deputy Director-General Hang Lina during a session yesterday introducing the results. “The definition of the census is more valid than the socio-economic survey.”
Nott Rama Rao, a consultant for the UN Population Fund, said that the latest definition was based on recommendations from the UN.
“The disabilities referred to here are total disabilities, not partial disabilities,” he explained.
As recently as 2006, the UN estimated the global disability rate at 10 percent. In comparison, the Cambodian disability rate is “hugely low,” said Lucile Papon, country director for Handicap International.
“There is a major discrepancy between this result and what we see in the field every day,” she said.
While Ms Papon acknowledged that the definition of “disabled” varies widely from country to country and has yet to be standardized, she said that the census results could be a setback.
“It was a very major step for the disabled community to be included in the census…but the result is something that has a risk for these people to be invisible again.”
Ny Nhar, mainstreaming project officer for the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, said yesterday that he was worried about how the figure would be used by government authorities and NGOs. “If they use this for planning, services for disabled people will decline,” he said.
He added that he was also concerned about how the international community will perceive the CDPO once they receive the newest statistics. “What will the donors think? We’ve said 4 percent for a long time. So we are telling lies?”
Although he stressed that he was not rejecting the census result, Mr Nhar said he hoped to see a national survey focusing specifically on disabilities.
In response to the concerns of people like Mr Nhar, NIS Director-General San Sy Than suggested that NGOs should begin using both the 4.7 percent and 1.4 percent disability rates.
“All figures are accurate, but are referring to different sources,” he said.
The 2008 census, conducted over 11 days of interviews in March 2008, is the first general population count to include questions about disability.
Almost half of the disabled men counted had movement-related disabilities such as missing limbs, most of which were acquired after birth. For Cambodian women, in contrast, the most frequent disabilities were in seeing, at 34.5 percent of disabled women, followed closely by disabilities in movement.
Disabled people were much less likely to be literate than the general population, according to census results. Only 62.3 percent of people with disabilities—and just over half of disabled women—could read and write in any language, compared to the national average of 78.4 percent.
Education for disabled people lags, too. More than 60 percent of disabled people hadn’t completed primary school; in fact, 14 percent had never even been to school. About half of the general population in Cambodia hadn’t completed primary school, according to the census results.