“When I help a child with a disability go to school, it’s incredibly rewarding. To see the change in their parents' attitudes, to see the parents taking care of their children properly and making children with disability more visible within their communities, - that makes me very proud”

It’s rare for any two days to be the same for Community Social Worker at Epic Arts, Chanthat Neang. Chanthat plays a crucial role in implementing the Out Of School Children project (OOSC) at Epic Arts. His role is threefold - firstly, it is his responsibility to identify potential beneficiaries. Secondly he is the key liaison between Epic Arts and the Department of Education (DoE) and Provincial of Education (PoE), and lastly he provides on-going support and advice to families. Chanthat has been working as a Social Worker since 2008 and joined Epic Arts in 2012. As a member of the ‘Special Education Project’ at Epic Arts, he is proud of the centre’s success and ongoing efforts to improve the lives of children with disability.

Chanthat is rarely at his desk for more than two hours a day. His working day usually starts with a home visit to see a family with a child enroled in the project. These home visits are the cornerstone to retaining children in the project. Whenever a family has a problem Chanthat is on hand to help them, be it to give information about health care, assist with the provision of a wheelchair, or to simply encourage them to play with their child. First and foremost, Chanthat sees his role as a bridge between the family and the outside world. He works closely with families to support them through difficult times and ensure they, and their children are safeguarded from harm. Ultimately, he just wants to help them improve their lives. “Families with children with disabilities often face lots of discrimination, and it’s my job to comfort and reassure them”, Chanthat says. “The stigma associated with disability is still rife in many communes I visit. I want to make sure they are safe and know about the different child protection polices in place to support them” he continues.

In Cambodia every family has a family book known as a ‘Seavpov krousar’. The book chronicles births, deaths and marriages. Chanthat recalls a case where the child with disabilities wasn’t listed in the ‘Seavpov krousar’ because the family didn’t think it was important to register him. The consequence of such an action means the data held at the commune is inaccurate. “Effectively, that child doesn’t exist” Chanthat recollects.

Children with disabilities not only face discrimination from outside the home, they can also face abuse, either emotional or physical within the family. “Poor families lack basic education about disability – what it is and how to cope” Chanthat says when asked about the challenges he faces on a daily basis. In the rural communities surrounding Kampot Town the rate of discrimination against children with disabilities is higher than in urban areas.  Chanthat’s job sees him travelling to many of these rural villages, where he has witnessed some distressing scenes. “Sometimes these families completely ignore the child with disability. They just don’t care for them at all – they are even denied food and basic personal welfare”. Chanthat describes a recent visit to Kaun Sat commune, “One family left the child in the wheelchair all the time, and in another I found a young child with autism was regularly tethered to the stilts underneath the house while his grandmother went to work. It was heartbreaking to see such a sight”. When he asked the family of the boy in the wheelchair why he was not at school, they responding by saying ‘he can’t learn to read or write, so why bother enroling him in school’.

In an effort to educate communities about disability, Chanthat holds regular meetings with families about disability to challenge, and redress misconceptions about disability. He continues his recollection about the case of the young boy with autism tethered to a tree. “The boy was being raised by his grandmother because his mother was dead, and his father had remarried. Sadly, it’s a common occurrence when the mother died - the child is passed on to an elder member of the family to raise.” He hesitates for a moment, “She (grandmother) said it was to prevent him from running away”.  The grandmother revealed the child was tied up in the morning before she went to the rice fields to work, then released for a short time to have some rice and wash, before being tied up again until she returned from work.

Raising awareness and educating families and communities about disability to remove the stigma associated with families is fundamental to Epic Arts achieving its objectives. Chanthat recalls one occasion he found incredibly alarming. He was just about to start his first home assessment of a child with a disabilities when the mother told him their neighbour had suggested they give the child medicine to kill him, or to kill themselves. “It is heartbreaking to know that some people believe to die is better than living with a disability. Sadly, this view isn’t uncommon”. The boy in question first enroled to study in the ‘special class’ at Epic Arts, and is now studying at the public school and is very happy. “I have a long list of examples of families who didn’t think their children would learn anything.” The education of communes and families is a vital aspect of Chanthat’s job, and Epic Arts.