A field trip to Ratanakiri province, Cambodia, Eoin Ryan on left with colleagues and members of community. Photo: Archive of Velibor Popovic, UNDP, April 2013Helping people with disabilities was always important for UN Volunteer Eoin Ryan. Eoin now works for UNDP in Cambodia on the design of a national programme aiming to improve the rights of persons with disabilities. “When I was a teenager my parents were very involved in our community and I started working with a community support group, which  organised local people to volunteer with people with disabilities,” Eoin describes his first encounter with this issue. This experience motivated him to study social science and social work in university and while studying, Eoin worked with an organization providing services to people with disabilities for five years. “In my undergraduate thesis I specialized in disabilities and in my master thesis I focused on mental health/disabilities. But at the same time I always wanted to work in development, so when Irish aid announced a UNV position focused on disabilities I applied for my dream job.” Eoin describes his journey leading him to Cambodia.
Fighting against stigma
According to estimates there are over 2 million persons with disabilities living in Cambodia. Due to the violent history of the country, it is very likely that the number is much higher. According to Eoin it is quite challenging to work on the issue of disabilities because of the different perceptions and cultural differences.  “In Cambodia there is a stigma against people with disabilities. If you have a disability it is sometimes believed that you did something bad in your former life and this is your punishment.” At the same time, the understanding of what disabilities are differs a lot in Cambodia. “As a part of our research we travelled to different regions and some very remote parts of the country. We interviewed many people and one person we spoke to was a landmine victim.  We asked him, how it feels to be living with disability and he told us: ‘But I don’t have a disability, I am just missing a leg’.“ Eoin recounts his experience from the field. “Physical disabilities are very visible in Cambodia, but other forms of disability including psycho-social, autistic-spectrum disorders or intellectual are rarely visible. People sometimes think someone is possessed by a demon/spirit if they act differently, so they don’t know what kind of supports they need or that they could lead a normal life,” says Eoin.
There are people with different kinds of disabilities in Cambodia, which are not properly advocated for. The programme, on the design of which Eoin is working, will aim at reducing the stigma, informing the public and reducing the barriers people with disabilities are facing. “Even in a country like Ireland persons with disabilities still face some barriers, so it is necessary to have a well organised, multi-sectoral system in place. Our programme is the first step in this process,” Eoin explains.
The right support can change lives
In an ideal world, people with disabilities could benefit hugely from the most appropriate form of intervention. “It is necessary to have NGOs, associations or governmental agencies, who would work in smaller geographical areas on provision of services. The NGO I worked for in Ireland provided day services, respite, organized employment, training; we had psychologist, social workers, psychiatrists, language therapists and kinesiologists among others. This is a very challenging work, but it is crucial to have specialists in issues that people with disabilities face.
Many people with disabilities experience difficulties in finding employment, but disabilities should not prevent them from being an active part of the society. “Like all of us, if people with disabilities receive the right type of support, they can work in a sector which suits their own talents, skill or interests, but also accommodates their needs. In many communities here in Cambodia people with disabilities help their families, but many times the families don’t realize their potential, and that they could do much more if they have the right support,” concludes Eoin, who hopes his work will contribute to a more inclusive society, which will offer equal opportunities to people living with disabilities in Cambodia.

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