For students anywhere, being admitted to university on merit is no small accomplishment. For a blind student in Cambodia, qualifying for university is a minor miracle.
Blind since birth, Tuy Sokha still remembers how she had hesitated to even apply for university. Overcoming her handicap to enter primary school and then finish high school had already been a major victory.
“I did not have friends and I thought it would be difficult to study at university,” Ms. Sokha said, recounting the fears she had harbored.
“There would be no book and document [in braille] and I was afraid that no one would want to befriend blind people. But my teacher encouraged me and explained that I should continue to study. I felt he was right.”
Accepted in the Department of Khmer literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh for the school year 2008, Ms. Sokha, along with Khuon Sothea and Eng Phearith are three blind students who have just finished their fourth and final years at RUPP.
They are among the 26 blind students who have completed or are currently enrolled in university programs in the country.
“It turned out so different from what I expected,” Ms. Sokha said.
Of particularly surprise, were the other university students she encountered during her years of study. They were friendly and helpful to blind students, Ms. Sokha said.
[They] helped me a lot, sometimes reading [texts aloud] and helping me to get to places.”
Ms. Sokha, Mr. Sothea and Mr. Phearith’s journey through disability to university degrees first began in primary-and-secondary school classes set up by the local organization Krousar Thmey, or New Family, who have developed education programs and material for blind and deaf students for more than 20 years.
Krousar Thmey’s students first start in specialized classes. But from grade three for blind students and grade five for deaf students, the students spend half their days in public schools, where they learn to interact with other students, teachers and the regular syllabus. They also begin to deal with the everyday situations that physically handicapped people the world over have to face.
For Mr. Sothea, the difficulty was dealing with some of the teachers in his high school who preferred to ignore him. One of those teachers had even told him that he did not have to pass his exams since he was just a temporary student.
But, it was Mr. Sothea’s classmates who came to his help, and got him through high school, often reading to him what he could not see himself.
In Mr. Phearith’s case, his first hurdle was just trying to get to school.
His father, he recounted, did not see the point in him studying because of his blindness. His mother insisted, however, and when Mr. Phearith won third prize in a general knowledge contest in grade six, his father stopped opposing his attendance at school.
Although they had succeeded against the odds at primary and high school, the thought of going on to university filled the three with apprehension.
“I thought that university students would be cold fish,” Mr. Phearith said. But he could not have been more wrong, he noted.
“They are very friendly and do not mind being with me. It makes me feel comfortable…. And teachers try to do what they can do to help us,” Mr. Phearith said.
Although other university students helped by reading texts aloud at times, it has been essential for the three blind students to concentrate on what teachers would say and to memorize entire texts and lessons.
Krousar Thmey has been translating school manuals in Braille – the reading and writing method for blind people that uses raised dots for letters and numbers. However, at the present time, university material and literary works are not available in braille or on computer programs that speak texts out loud.
Touch Phara, deputy director of the Department of Khmer Literature, said that the determination of blind students has been key to their success.
“There is not much difference between teaching blind students and ordinary students. The only difference is that we have to repeat the main points for them, which is good for both blind and ordinary students,” Mr. Phara said.
“Those three blind students are very good students…each semester, they got very good marks in their exams. They work very hard…have good study habits, discipline and behavior. They are punctual and are never absent from school. When we explain something, they really focus.”
“Some ordinary students are not as good as them,” Mr. Phara added.
Sean Viboth was one of the first blind students to be admitted to the Department of Khmer Literature in 2006. Like other students from poor families, he tried to get part-time work while in university as all the money his family gave him was spent on material for class.
“During all of my four years, I had only one meal a day, at night at home with my family.” At breakfast and lunchtime, he would meditate and concentrate on his studies to master his hunger, he said.
Having graduated with good marks in 2010 and also having good computer skills, Mr. Viboth applied to organizations dealing with the physically disabled and for jobs in the public service.
But he was turned down repeatedly.
“How would you feel if, each time you handed your CV, you would not get the job even though you were qualified for it,” Mr. Viboth said.
A good singer and able to play several musical instrument, Mr. Viboth performed at wedding functions to earn money. This led to him being invited to sing on Bayon TV during the Khmer New Year in April 2011.
After his performance, the host of the show invited Mr. Viboth to speak.
Mr. Viboth had a short speech prepared in advance. Given the microphone, he explained that he wanted to become a public servant, which required studying at the Royal School of Administration-Cambodia’s public-service school.
He ended his short speech with a direct appeal to Prime Minister Hun Sen to intercede so he could be admitted to the civil servants’ school.
Within weeks, Mr. Hun Sen announced in a speech at the school that he had contacted Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, president of the school’s board of directors, and that Mr. Viboth had been admitted to the one-year advanced program. Since then, Mr. Viboth has been studying at the school where, he said, he has received the support of both fellow students and teachers. He is now going through final exams.
The program, which covered about 30 topics such as government service management and laws and regulations to implement, has left him feeling that he needed to know much more. He now is hoping to do a Masters’ degree in public administration.
Auray Aun, Krousar Thmey’s managing director, said there is a need now to help blind graduates find work.
“We realized that we were somehow victims of our success: Having managed to bring young blind people to university level, we had to consider this influx of young, qualified human resources. We therefore have had to open a department to follow up on students and assure their integration into the labor market,” Mr. Aun said.
“We have had a young team in place for a year and a half, assigned to follow up on university students, and help those who have not reached that level to get into specialized training programs or jobs,” he said.
Currently, there are blind students at the University of Battambang; the tourism and hospitality Paul Dubrule School in Siem Reap City; Panassastra University and the Royal University of Fine Arts in addition to RUPP and the Royal School of Administration in Phnom Penh. Krousar Thmey is now in discussion with other institutions, such as the Royal University of Law and Economics, Mr. Aun said.
While blind students have gained a foothold at university, deaf students have yet to be admitted, said Mr. Aun, explaining that the schools feel they have not reached the capacity to teach those students.
Therefore to help deaf students acquire marketable skills, Krousar Thmey has started a vocational training program in digital photo manipulation and desktop publishing.
A market study revealed that photographic studios were often asked to modify features on wedding photographs, such as changing the background to include Angkor Wat or other stylized elements, Mr. Aun said. The first deaf students who took the 6-month training program have already found work, he added.
Mr. Sothea, who with Ms. Sokha and Mr. Phearith recently completed final exams, said that attended university as a blind person was not so much the issue. Education alone is the real issue, he said.
“[Students] should value education because the most important thing for people is education: When we have education, we can achieve anything we want. So they should try their best.”
Mr. Sothea now hopes to find work as a teacher for the blind.