More disabled children stay home during the day than attend classes in rural Cambodia because their parents cannot afford school or to find reliable transportation, a nonprofit group has found in a first-of-its-kind survey of disabled students.
The Disability Action Council’s survey of schools in Prey Veng province also found that physically disabled children are the easiest to integrate into regular schools, while deaf, blind and intellectually impaired children are the most excluded and the hardest to introduce into classes.
The report comes just as the government prepares to adopt a new five-year plan for education. The plan may be completed as soon as April 19, when Minister of Education Tol Lah meets with consultants.
So far, the plan does not include mention of specialized issues for disabled students such as school accessibility, extra teacher training or any of the myriad problems associated with educating special needs children.
“We hope it’s just an oversight,” said Philippa Thomas, project coordinator of the Disability Action Council.
While teachers and principals are generally willing to include disabled students in their classrooms, they often lack the training to work with disabled students, according to the council’s report.
The council presented its findings at the first day of a conference on education for disabled children held at the Pre School Teacher Training Center on Norodom Boulevard.
Some 100 people listened as teachers, education officials and experts talked about the importance of admitting disabled students to regular schools.
The council was created three years ago to coordinate the activities of four nonprofit groups that work with disabled children. It is funded in part by a three-year, $60,000 Unicef grant.
No comprehensive study exists of disabled students in Cambodia—the council hopes to conduct one in the near future—but a council survey of nine primary schools in Svay Teab district, Svay Rieng, had troubling conclusions.
The site was chosen because it is representative of most Cambodian schools, Thomas said. The schools in the survey are rural, far from a main road, unsupported by any NGO, overcrowded, understaffed and poor.
There the group found 158 disabled children living in villages near the schools, with just 73 of those children attending classes. The disabilities ranged from a cleft palate and polio to hearing and visual impairments.
Students with mental disabilities face an even more bleak future than those with physical disabilities, because the country has virtually no facilities to help them, Thomas said.
Just 500 disabled students attend a handful of specialized schools in Cambodia that cater to them.
For most disabled students, like Nguon Chanthorn, 19, just getting to school is a challenge. He lost his sight to measles at 9 months old, but walks to class with the help of others and hopes someday to be an English teacher, he told people at Tuesday’s conference.
“I suggest that my teachers not be absent so often. I try hard to come to class and sometimes it turns out that my teacher doesn’t come,” he said.
While Cambodian schools are just opening up to disabled students, schools in Laos are in the second phase of a national plan to send the disabled to school, said Sithath Outhaithany of the Laotian Ministry of Education. He spoke at Tuesday’s conference.
The project uses regular monitoring and parental involvement to send some 336 disabled students to public schools. They hope to enroll 3,750 students at 441 schools by 2005, he said.
Key to the program’s success is the limit of three disabled students to a classroom, and the requirement that school principals share ideas with each other, he said.