Saturday, June 27, 2009

Disabled people in Myanmar battle stigma

From IRIN:

YANGON -- Nay Lin Soe, aged 28, campaigns for the rights of the disabled in Myanmar, a marginalized group with few rights and little support.

He contracted polio at the age of three, gets around on crutches, and has devoted his adult life to raising awareness of, and dispelling negative attitudes towards, disability.
"People in Myanmar think about disability in a traditional way," Nay Lin Soe told IRIN. "A family will usually regard a disabled person as a burden. And often a disabled person can feel like a burden because he or she doesn't have a chance to lead a productive life."

Government-funded facilities for the disabled are limited. For a nation of 56 million people, there is just one school for disabled children, one vocational training centre for adults, and one rehabilitation centre - all in the commercial capital Yangon.

The disabled make up around 2.3 percent of the population, or some 1.3 million people, according to government figures.

Stigma and lack of mobility hamper them in their efforts to get a good education and a job. "They are isolated and excluded from society. As children they cannot go to school; as adults they have little or no income because it is almost impossible for them to get employment," said Nay Lin Soe.

The Education Ministry's policy is to provide opportunities for disabled children in ordinary schools, but problems remain.

This month, the Disabled People's Development Organization (DPDO), a local NGO established in 2003, will open its first office in Yangon. It aims to change attitudes towards disability, campaign for equal rights and provide a place where its 120 members can come and share their experiences.

Nay Lin Soe, who is on the executive committee, told IRIN: "Lack of capacity is our biggest problem in promoting disability awareness and helping people living with disabilities."

Nay Lin Soe is also the project manager of a community-based rehabilitation programme run by AAR Japan, one of the few foreign NGOs funding projects for disabled people in Myanmar.

AAR runs a vocational training centre in a suburb of north Yangon, where disabled people from across the country learn tailoring and hairdressing.

Chit Hinn Wai, who had both legs amputated above the knee after falling from a train at the age of 13, is learning hairdressing on a three month residential course. Since her accident five years ago she has lived in a government-run orphanage and this is the first time she has been able to share her experiences with other disabled people.

"I've made new friends and I've learned so much. I hope to use my skills and one day lead an independent life," she said.

AAR also runs community-based rehabilitation programmes in three areas affected by last year's Cyclone Nargis. They offer physiotherapy, free crutches and braces, and aim to make schools more accessible for disabled children.

But the one-year programme is a tiny contribution. "There just isn't enough support, from both inside and outside the country," said Nay Lin Soe. "My hope is that all disabled people in Myanmar can live with dignity."