I Can – Ability beyond disAbility

A series of portraits of people with disabilities in Cambodia, taken from the perspective of celebrating their abilities instead of limitations, focusing on their journey of empowerment and crafting a life of independence for themselves. From a rice farmer to a director of a NGO, from a tailor to a fisherman, they all have the abilities to do what everyone else does and these photos show exactly that, not their disabilities. Created in collaboration with various local Non-Governmental Organizations and Heinrich Boll Foundation.

Penh Chamrean, chicken farmer (60), Amchang Rong, Kampong Chhnang province
A leg amputee from a landmine explosion in Battambang in 1989. “I was very sad when the accident happened, didn’t want to meet any family or friends from my village. After a while they encouraged me and now I try to survive and earn my living with farming and selling eggs. Around 30 per day, earning a daily average of $7.5.”

Chim Kong, silk seller (42), Toul Tom Poung, Phnom Penh
Before a landmine accident in 1989 near Kampong Cham she used to enjoy going with her father to collect palm juice for making sugar. After growing up, she started a handicraft business in 2004, moving later to nearby the Russian market where she still owns the Ta Prohm shop. Before Covid-19 she employed 12 other people with disabilities, helping them providing for their families. “My message to other people to disabilities is to learn a skill you like, so you can help yourself.”

Sokkouch, worker at a sustainable charcoal factory (25), Stueng Meanchey, Phnom Penh
Having intellectual impairment since birth and living in the ACH shelter where he learns to be more independent, now he got a job at the Khmer Green Charcoal, helping to reduce logging and environmental destruction by producing sustainable charcoal from materials such as coconut shells. In ACH him and his friends also have a small organic vegetable garden and make jam for the L’Irresistible social brand. As Soungsephan, the program director, says: “The biggest motivation for them is love. Here we are family, I am like their big sister!”

Sim Vanny, tuk-tuk driver (30), Phnom Penh
Deaf since he was three years old, got his education at NISE/Krousar Thmey school and after used to work on a factory but since two years ago have been driving a tuk-tuk since ride hailing apps made it easier for him to communicate with customers. He knows at least other three deaf drivers in Phnom Penh and one in Kampong Cham, using this livelihood to get financial independent. “With my family I communicate by pointing at things or acting, but I would like that one day they would learn Cambodian Sign Language. I can only feel vibrations or very low frequencies, for instance buses passing or cars with loud music. I have many other friends who are deaf so we can talk with each other using signs and hangout, that’s my hobby. I also like to help my mother who is a fruit seller at Phsar Damko and Orussey, one market in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Everyday I go to help her carrying fruits.”

“I would like if more people would know sign language for everyone to be able to communicate with each other, deaf and hearing people need to be friends together, without discrimination. Don’t leave us alone, try to talk with us even if by just writing on a piece of paper, body language or acting.” – Vanny

So Chamreun, tailor (44), Orussey, Phnom Penh
Leg amputee from a landmine explosion in Kampong Cham. When the accident happened she felt hopeless but with a prosthetic leg she slowly managed to turn her life back to normal, to study and find a job. Family and friends were always supportive but at times she felt discriminated by the neighbors. “Now people know their rights as people with disabilities, it’s getting better comparing to when she was young. My message is to work hard and study hard to get success, do not feel hopeless. And do not discriminate disabled people, give them motivation to succeed.”

Chhoum Samnang, student (14), Prek Tasek, Chroy Changva
With a congenital disability affecting arms and legs, and still feeling pain on her feet from walking and
getting tired to go to school with all the stairs to climb – not that this discourages her. “Some of the classmates bully me, say mean things or don’t want to play with me. But I keep studying and now I like to play football. When I grow up I want to find a job working in an office.”

Mom Phy, rice farmer (49), Thlok Chrov village, Kampong Chhnang
A leg amputee from a landmine explosion in Koh Kong in 1987, with support from Exceed to get a prosthetic leg and making him fully independent to support himself and his family, including collecting palm sugar to sell. He never felt discrimination from the other villagers.

Rous Mam, fisherman, cow farmer and musician (70), Amchang Rong, Kampong Chhnang province
A leg amputee from a landmine explosion in Kampong Chhnang in 1984, now earning his living with various jobs, including playing music at weddings and setting up a shop with his wife with the help of a NGO.

Seng Morm, mechanic (61), Trouk, Kampong Chhnang province
A leg amputee from a landmine explosion in Pailin in 1986, now having a successful road side shop with his wife and fixing motorbikes, sometimes making up to $25 per day.

Seun Kaiy, owner of a beauty salon (28), Tro Peangpor, Phnom Penh
Got polio when she was two years and half, leaving her permanent marks on her legs. After getting training on how to run a beauty salon from Exceed, founded her own business and currently is training new interns. Before Covid-19 she could make $20 to 30 per day, on weekends up to $100 or $200. She just got married as well. “What helped me to overcome what happened to me was going to the NGO and seeing so many people with disabilities, actually more severe than me, and they were still fighting to get back on their lives. We always have to try our best to stand by our own self and don’t rely on others, not even parents or siblings. We must be strong for ourselves.”

Ieng Sovannara, IT manager and teacher (33), Phnom Penh
Grew up in Kandal province and in 1995 started studying at NISE/Krousar Thmey school, ending up teaching English there from 2008 onwards. Text-to-speech technology has been revolutionary for him and other blind people by enabling them to use smartphones and computers, and indeed in 2011 he started to teach ICT for blind children, skills such as Microsoft Office or how to use the internet. Meanwhile he also applied for a scholarship and learnt programming and web design, being helping as well a recording studio that is creating audiobooks for blind people. “My hobby is to learn new things online, and also started a youtube channel called Sreyneang Chheun because there is a lack of contents for blind people in Khmer. Also it’s not easy to find books in Khmer braille and there is no Khmer text-to-speech software so blind people who don’t speak English have no way to use computers or smartphones. People are not used to deal with visual-impaired people, technologies such as ride hailing apps are very helpful to overcome this and gain some independence. Dealing with traffic is also difficult, for instance walking on the road and the nonexistence of sidewalks. Sometimes I can use the cane to walk alone on the street, but sometimes the traffic is too busy and it’s hard. We are alone, people discriminate us for instance by thinking we don’t have money to pay for something, or by not treating as well. If I go to a local market people think I’m a beggar, and is often to find jobs because employers don’t know what we can do. But the visual-impaired also have knowledge and ability to work, don’t discriminate them.”

Vandy, traditional musician (24), Takeo province
A graduate from NISE/Krousar Thmey school, he earns his living by playing in weddings and funerals, besides giving music classes to kids for free. One of his best experience was to go two times to play in Japan, where he says the society is designed in a more inclusive way and made it easier for a blind person like him to be independent, for instance by being able to use the public train and metro. His dream is to save enough money to buy all the Cambodian traditional instruments.

Sokvat Van, physiotherapist and massagist (35), Phnom Penh
Working in Mark Chen fitness academy in Phnom Penh as a specialist, it has been a long way since his childhood. Born in Battambang province where he lost his eye sight at three years old due to a bomb blast, he later studied in NISE/Krousar Thmey school and completed a bachelor degree in English and a massage course at a japanese NGO. He also volunteered in NGOs such as CDPO, Handicap International, CDMD and the Disability Action Council, besides being an intern in Care International for disability rights and support their programs on factories and hospitals in order to turn them more accessible. “My mother was worried about me, wanted me to stay at home. But I wanted to do something with my life. There is a lot of discrimination against the blind, no one believes we can do the work. And the physical environment in Phnom Penh is not accessible to people like us, only ride hailing apps make our lives easier in terms of mobility. The city should be more friendly, the buildings having braille and voice records on the elevators for instance. The environment around me, especially my mother, always encouraged me. We lived in poverty, I lost my father when I was 8 years old and I’m the first child, so I was always responsible for the family. I decided to study and take all the opportunities to succeed like other people.”

“Stop discriminating against people with disabilities, we have different talents! I can do everything like other people if I try hard.” – Sokvat Van

Mey Samith, NGO director (41), Phnom Penh
Director of the Phnom Penh Center for Independent Living, a NGO focused on disability rights and access to services for people with disabilities (PwD). He has to use wheelchair due to polio at a young age, but that didn’t stop him from finishing a training in electronic devices repairing and a bachelor on management and business administration in 2014. After that he studied social welfare four years in Japan, a period that made him realize the importance of a country taking responsibility to help PwD, and now works with the government to promote inclusion in the community development model. For instance is current piloting a project of a monthly fee for PwD and a personal assistant from the community itself, while also implementing a welfare taxi with access for PwD. Previously he already had setup an accessible tuk-tuk through a partnership with the organization AgileDG.

Choy Sokhorn, NGO project officer (40), Kampot
Working in Epic Arts in various projects, seen here organizing a Covid-19 relief program with food distribution to a local orphanage and school, having training in counseling and an extensive experience in social work. For instance in Cambodia Trust and Exceed for 10 years, as community supervisor at Epic Arts for 4 years and another disability foundation with 13 rehabilitation centers around Cambodia. Sometimes worked three different jobs at the same time, on a NGO, bartender at night and part-time receptionist in a hotel. Grew up in Kandal province where she got polio when she was 7 months old, which affected her leg and couldn’t walk for three years. “My grandma trained me with a homemade bamboo walking frame to be able to walk again.” A crucial skill since she had to walk 5km every day to go to school. “In my village not so many girls were going to school, they had to help parents with work. But my parents were supporting me to go to school until 12th grade during morning, and I would work in the afternoon. I also joined vocational training of computers and English in a NGO. At times, everybody around used to laugh at me but it was not a problem because I’m not shy so if someone said something to me I’ll go and hit them!”

“We need to encourage the communities to support education, especially parents of kids with disabilities. They need to continue to give value to themselves, go to school and follow opportunities. Before parents would say ‘oh you have a disability, you don’t need to go anywhere, just stay at home and cook for us’ but people with disabilities are not slaves, we have equal rights and can develop our own skills.” – Choy Sokhorn

Reoung Hang, NGO handicraft assistant (25), Kampot
Working in Epic Arts, as part of the Epic Creations shop, which enable her to live independently and not having to rely on others for money. “When I was in primary school I couldn’t walk. My classmates would steal and hide my wheelchair because they didn’t like me and they judged me because of my disability. When I was 10 my family found a NGO for me to start physical therapy. As I practiced the exercises I always kept thinking to myself over and over ‘Keep walking, keep moving forward’. Even though I was only 10 I knew that only I could help myself. I learnt to walk, I was so happy, maybe the happiest I’ve ever been, I never thought I would be able to walk. Honestly, my disability doesn’t have a big impact on my life now. I’m happy regardless of my disability. I’m very confident, I don’t worry if people stare at me anymore. It doesn’t matter what your disability is, you can overcome your challenges. When you do that people will see it and they will value and respect you.”

Som Ryna, cook (33), Kampot
“I’ve been working at Epic Arts Cafe for 7 years, after tooking part in the Epic Arts Inclusive Arts Course. When I first started I was serving drinks and food to customers, then received a lot of training and now I’m one of the senior kitchen staff working alongside Dol La and the rest of the kitchen team, who’re also deaf like me.

Dol La, kitchen supervisor (34), Kampot
“The team at Epic Arts Café are my best friends, I’m so happy to work here. I’ve worked here since 2006. Having a job means that I can support myself and my two young children, that makes me happy especially because I can support their education. My children can hear but I taught them sign language when they were small. I’m so proud of them and I want to support them to study and have a good future. One of them wants to be a doctor when he grows up. When I went to school I was the only deaf student and no one knew sign language so it was very difficult. The teachers there were very supportive and encouraging, but my classmates were not as friendly and would always laugh at me. When I was 16 and I met another deaf person for the first time, they told me about Deaf Development Programme and I enrolled to learn sign language. At first I was shy but as more I learnt my confidence improve and I felt strong.”

Hip Phalla, hearing health clinician (31), Phnom Penh
Grew up in Kandal province where she got a hearing impairement during high school due to oto-toxicity derived from a bad reaction to an antibiotic after a tooth removal. She came to All Ears Cambodia as a patient when she was 26 years old, receiving personalized care and an hearing aid. Now she works in the NGO testing patients hearing abilities and advising on treatment, after taking a two year course on audiology and studying nursing in the university. “I wanted to contribute for the lives of people with the same problem as me. And I want people to know how to take care of their ears and fix problems early.”

Mean Teuksia, phone repairer (24), Russey Keo, Phnom Penh
A leg amputee due to a train accident when he was 6 years old, now fully independent after receiving a 6 months training course from Exceed in electronics. “When we can learn a skill and make money for ourselves then we can still help society. We are all the same, with disability or without.”