Primary school teacher Liem Rong contracted polio when he was a year old and has walked with a pronounced limp ever since. Although his illness left him physically disabled, he is, he stresses, in full mental health.
For the last three years he has been working at the Lavalla school in Kandal province’s Takhmau district, which takes only disabled children and employs only disabled teachers. But Liem Rong never received full state teacher training. He was barred because of his disability.
He is forbidden from teaching in government schools because of his limp, even though he says he is fully capable of teaching disabled and able-bodied children alike.
“I don’t know if they do the same in other countries,” Liem Rong said Tuesday. “This is not fair for us…. This is discrimination.”
The government’s refusal to accept physically disabled teachers perplexes NGOs, disabled teachers and disabled children.
Barring physically disabled adults from attending teacher training college is illegal and a breach of their rights, a UN High Commission for Human Rights legal official said Wednesday. “It’s against [their] human rights and constitutional rights,” the official said. “It’s a serious matter. We will take it up.”
But Chey Chap, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, defended the government’s refusal to recruit physically disabled teachers.
“Sometimes candidates have a mark on their face and it frightens children in class,” he said. “Or a teacher with a disabled hand…or crooked back makes the students feel bad.” The government recruits people in good physical condition who will not be insulted by students, he said.
The government stopped recruiting disabled teachers in 1993, Chey Chap said. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the government lacked human resources and was prepared to recruit physically disabled teachers, he said. “But now we return to the old [way] because human resources have increased and we have the chance to select,” he said.
Lavalla, a private school, has a special dispensation allowing it to employ disabled teachers. It opened in 1998 after school officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Education.
“It was very hard to persuade [the ministry] to agree,” said Ouch Nimul, administration officer at the school.
The seven teachers, many of whom are disabled by polio, are allowed to take part in workshops with able-bodied teachers outside the school, Ouch Nimul said.
Although the government rejects Lavalla’s teachers, NGOs say it is one of the best schools for disabled children in the country. Lavalla currently has 85 pupils aged between 12 and 18. It cares for disabled children whose parents are too poor to look after them. Seventy percent of those at the school are disabled by polio, while others were injured in industrial accidents or were born disabled.
The school is run by the Marist Brothers, a Catholic organization, and is equipped with a swimming pool, basketball court and a music room.
Teachers at the school have scant sympathy for the government’s ban.
“One of us only has a club foot, but the government didn’t let her sit the exam to become a teacher,” said Hong Lai, who teaches Khmer, mathematics, social studies and science. He is wheelchair-bound due to polio.
Hong Lai believes it is important especially for disabled children to be taught by disabled adults. “They can see me as a role model,” he said. “It encourages them to struggle in their lives.”
Under the current policy, vital opportunities to help disabled children are being thrown away, said David Jones, the Disability Action Council adviser on special needs. “There are some very talented disabled people who could give positive role models for disabled children so they don’t drop out,” he said.
Children at the school also stressed the benefits of being taught by adults who understand their condition. “Disabled teachers are much better than normal teachers because they know about disabled children’s difficulties,” said Seng Im, 12, while taking a break from exercises to strengthen her weaker leg.
Discrimination against the disabled is common throughout Cambodia, not just in the education sector, Ouch Nimul said. “Whenever we want to do anything they refuse to accept us—they say they want normal people.”
The council is lobbying the government to change the law to better protect the rights of disabled people, Jones said. The council hopes to see a new law passed within the next two years. When that happens, “fantastic talent being wasted will be put to use,” he said.
As it stands, the government’s attitude toward disabled teachers is pointless and inconsistent with government policy, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association.
“Disabled people can work for the government also,” he said. “Prime Minister Hun Sen is blind in one eye and he still stays in power.”