For years, Thim Ty listened to neighbours who said it would be useless to send her daughter who has learning difficulties to school.
Yet at home, 14-year-old Chantha (not her real name) faced discrimination from people living nearby who would not let their children play with her.
This all changed after Chantha’s plight came to the attention of commune authorities, who put Ms Ty in touch with a Japanese-backed NGO that supports inclusive education for children with disabilities.
Chantha has just started grade one at Preah Prasop Primary School in Kandal province with help from the Association for Aid and Relief Japan, known as AAR Japan.
“When I sent her there, I was afraid she would cause difficulties for other students and teachers but when I asked the teachers, they said it was not a problem,” Ms Ty said.
“Since going to school, she knows how to be more polite to older people, unlike when she was just staying at home.
“Her disability means she has difficulty speaking and couldn’t pronounce the alphabet.”
Ms Ty said Chantha can only speak easy words, but can now pronounce some characters of the alphabet.
After help from the NGO to send her to a hospital in Takhmao on a regular basis, she can do some housework such as clothes washing.
AAR Japan started the project to help students with disabilities three years ago and is currently working in 15 communes of Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district.
Chantha’s condition is only one of the difficulties Ms Ty, a 55-year-old mother of six, has faced.
“She was born with this condition because I had problems with my reproductive system.
“I had two babies who died and the doctor told me not to have more, but back then we didn’t know how to protect ourselves from having babies,” she said.
Things have improved since the inclusive education project started.
Ms Ty said there is less discrimination now. She told neighbours who prevented their children from playing with Chantha that she would complain to the NGO about discrimination if they carried on.
“The children just play with her now,” Ms Ty said.
Yean Ratana, project manager with AAR Japan, said this was the last year of the current three-year project.
“We are planning to help four more schools in four communes,” he said.
In June, AAR signed up for the project’s last year to provide nearly $300,000 to retrofit schools and train teachers.
“AAR Japan will continue its activities in supporting inclusive education for children with disabilities in Kandal province to enable all children to get enrolled without discrimination,” Japanese Ambassador Horinouchi Hidehisa said at the time.
“We focussed on the children with disabilities, but all students will also benefit from the infrastructure and paved roads.
“We help support children with disabilities by providing ramps and disabled toilets.
“They can move about freely in school. We don’t discriminate against children with different kinds of disability. If we cannot help blind children, we can facilitate sending them to a specialised NGO.”
Mr Ratana said 15 communes in Khsach Kandal district were covered by the AAR Japan inclusive education project.
This included both technical assistance and money from the Japanese government. Four Cambodian and two Japanese people were working on the project.
“First we work with the authorities, health centres and the education department and then we train our working group members and build the infrastructure.
“We also train teachers on how to deal with with different kinds of disability,” Mr Ratana said.
The official project was started after a pioneer project at three primary schools in 2013.
The project did not cover high schools because the number of student dropouts at primary school was higher.
“After the successful pioneer project, they received grants for the three-year project,” he said.
Though he could not put a figure on the enrolment of students with disabilities, Mr Ratana said it had increased. AAR Japan helped to provide disabled students with services for free.
“We can send blind children to the hospital. Parents just have to accompany them to the appointment and pay for their own lunch.
“Treatment costs, medicine, the consultation and travel costs will be covered by our NGO,” Mr Ratana said.
The NGO also provides wheelchairs, glasses, hearing aids and bicycles.
He said the project aimed to be a role model for other NGOs who wished to improve the education of students with disabilities.
The school director and commune authorities fear the project will not be sustainable after the removal of AAR Japan funding, but Mr Ratana said the work would continue.
“We are doing a proposal to request funding from the Japan International Co-operation Agency,” he said.
“Though the project is coming to a close, we have a follow-up. We don’t want to see the activity ending after the project is removed.”
Preah Prasop Primary School director Sous Sokheang said there were 29 students with disabilities out of 1,500 students in the school.
Some had learning difficulties and others had physical disabilities.
“We have 23 teachers and all of them have received training from AAR about how to deal with the students with disabilities,” he said.
Mr Sokheang also worries about how the project will be sustained when the project money runs out. The school budget was only enough for support of the original operations.
Grade one teacher Sou Theavy, 24, said students without disabilities can study at the proper pace, those with disabilities needed extra attention.
“I have one student with a learning disability. I have a lot of difficulty with her,” Ms Theavy said.
“She cannot catch up with other students so we need to help her a lot.
“Otherwise, it will affect other students, so we give them more work at home or in their free time,” she said.
Ms Theavy said that students with mobility problems have to leave classes first because they might be pushed by other students and be put in danger. For eye problems, the NGO offers glasses.
“I have also had training about disabilities. Before the training we didn’t know about types of disability or how to help them,” she said.
New commune chief Choung Chhuny said she had seen a lot of differences since the project started, including less discrimination and more awareness about disability.
“Our contribution to the project is also to collect the data of each house in the commune and report it to the NGO,” she said.
She said the commune office was working with the provincial hall to create a committee for disabilities, for which the provincial hall had approved a budget request.
Hout Chamnan, department chief of Khsach Kandal district office, said the people who worked for disabled students were admired for what was a difficult job.
“They are the children that sometimes their parents leave behind, but they take on the burden.
“They are a non-political group who work for the development of the people.
“People blame having a disabled child on sin from a previous life but the NGO makes them understand and value students with disability,” he said.
Mr Chamnan acknowledged that his office did not focus much on students with disabilities before.
“So far we are focussing on people with disability. Now they are being promoted and assisted in all areas.
“We welcome all constructive comments from the AAR for the improvement of our work,” he said, adding that he wanted to see AAR Japan stay on in the area.