You can’t explain what the problem is
You may remember the movie The King’s Speech from a few years back telling the story of Britain’s Prince Albert (and later King George VI), who over came a crippling stammer. The movie earned actor Colin Firth an Oscar.
The future king beat his disability with the help of a speech therapist, and the film shows in excruciating detail how he achieved it.
Albert was fortunate enough, as the heir to the throne, to have the help he needed, but in the poorer parts of the world often there’s no-one. Thousands of people disadvantaged by the fact they can’t communicate effectively, regardless of whether their thoughts and ideas are award winning or not.
In Cambodia it’s thought that up to 600,000 people are affected by a communication disability or swallowing disorder, yet until a few years ago there wasn’t a single qualified person able to help them.
Their chances of completing even a basic education stalled because they couldn’t speak or express themselves clearly enough.
Australian Weh Yeoh is trying to change that. A trained physiotherapist he arrived in Cambodia after a year working in China. He hooked up with a local NGO CABDICO helping rural communities.
His lightbulb moment came when he learned children with speech or communication difficulties had no-one to help them.
“I was shocked and angered by the fact that there was virtually nothing to help these children and decided that I had to do something,” he told me.
Communication disorders present themselves in a variety of different forms. You might have a stammer, where you can’t quite get the words you want to say out. You might have difficulty pronouncing words correctly, or understanding what is being said, or asked of you.
There can be multiple causes too. Neurological – like Downs Syndrome or autism; physical like a cleft palate or a person might be deaf; or they may have suffered a stroke or sustained brain damage in an accident.
All these things can potentially be helped with a trained therapist and is crucial to allow people to be part of society.
Says Weh: “The impact of communication disorder can range from mild to severe, with issues that can be temporary or last a lifetime. Even mild communication disability can have a serious impact on how a person functions in their daily life, like speaking in class, ordering a meal in a restaurant or finding a job. Communication impairment can impact on interactions at home, at work and socially.”
But rather than do the therapy himself Weh is training up Cambodians themselves to do the job, assisted by volunteers from home. His aim to set up speech therapy as a profession with recognised university courses.
Weh wants to change attitudes that many people have about those who can’t communicate clearly.
“Many people in Cambodia are unaware of this problem. Many of [those affected] are thought by others to be ‘stupid’ and are not allowed the privilege of going to school or interacting with others in their community.
“They are held back as they cannot communicate properly or have trouble receiving communication and the community is unaware of how to accommodate and tailor their communication styles to these children.”
Therapy comes in many different forms – depending on the exact condition.
Photo credit: Anna Bella Betts.
Something as simple as blowing bubbles can help children like Tai (above) coordinate the movement of her tongue and lips better – necessary for speaking more clearly.
Others like Ling (below) slurred his speech because of the cerebral palsy he has. He didn’t go to school. But after therapy it’s a different story.
“He’s able to communicate better with his family, ride a bicycle, make new friends and attend school. Before speech therapy, many people, including his family, labelled Ling ‘stupid’. Now, he’s second in his class. He also jokes that he now has “too many friends”.
Photo credit: Hugo Sharp
Cambodia has its fair share of people with physical disabilities – victims of war and unexploded remnants of war – people are still being maimed and killed by the leftovers of conflicts which ended decades ago.
And in reality people with more obvious disabilities – like an amputee for example – get a greater share of the attention. Says Weh: “It’s much easier to give somebody a prosthetic limb than to do speech therapy with them for a year.”
Still that’s not deterring Weh. “At OIC, we believe that all people with disabilities deserve the support needed to live independent lives, even those who have been left behind.”
And there’s more than one way to tell a story.
You can find out more about the project by visiting OIC Cambodia