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Learning from people with disability in Cambodia

A young visually impaired girl in Cambodia creates an artwork to describe her experience of living with a disability. She paints a world famous character from the popular mobile phone game Angry Birds. Painting it with one eye closed represents her life. This icon is something all young people instantly understand.

Another young artist takes a photograph of a plant pushing through the pavement cracks near a temple. Australian Red Cross aid worker David Curtis explains it is symbolic of how people with disabilities live. Society is represented by the tough paving - seemingly impenetrable, and the plant represents people with disabilities who push against the odds to achieve and succeed.

"It was a genuine moment of insight for both the organisation and the young people themselves," says David of this life-changing project.

Based in the capital Phnom Penh, David coordinates the Cambodian Initiative for Disability Inclusion (CIDI). In partnership with a Cambodian media non-government organisation, Action IEC, David and CIDI worked with young people to look at how art and new technologies are part of the lives of young people with disabilities.

David's aim at CIDI is clear; to improve the lives of people with disabilities. They are supported to gain increased self confidence and respect and are helped to participate more fully in Cambodian society, David says.

The past three years have been a busy time for David, working right across Cambodia. No fewer than 53 projects have been underway, partnering with close to 40 organisations including Cambodian Red Cross.

David says he is pleased to be linking people with a disability with mainstream society, across a wide range of projects such as arts, sports, research, vocational training and income generation. CIDI's work has also been improving the health and wellbeing of people with a disability across the country through projects on rehabilitation, mine risk education and community health.

There has been big change in the confidence and life skills of so many Cambodians with a disability through the projects, David says. "I'm very proud of what the CIDI network has achieved," he says.

In Cambodia, six per cent of the population lives with a disability and almost one fifth of those people have amputations, according to the Royal Government of Cambodia's Socio Economic Survey (2009).

"While it's a big undertaking I never feel tired when working with this inspirational group. I love the work and feel happy, inspired and motivated - we all learn from says David.


Photo: Australian Red Cross delegate and Senior Program Officer, David Curtis and Mao Meas meet with Rithy Keo at the Veterans International Cambodia Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Centre, where there is a workshop for the production of prostheses and orthoses. (Cambodian Red Cross/Tiet Ho)