The Dark Side of a Bright Culture: Disability in Cambodia

Cambodia is a surprise to me in that there is something about it that touches me and makes me love it despite the fact that there are many things here that just make things unpleasant for me. The dearth of beloved coffee, for one. The presence of so much aching poverty and helpless disability, for another.

The other day, we were walking down the street and were just about to head back to our hotel. We were tired already, sweat pouring off of us in the humid tropical heat. Mack had been whining for most of the afternoon, cranky as hell and Moxie was bolting and just being bratty.

We had been asked for money or help repeatedly earlier in the day, at Angkor Wat; we gave. And gave. And gave. And then when we were walking down the street there, this young mother with a tiny baby in a sling came to me and asked me for milk for her baby.


So Mikey went with her to the store to buy some milk and it turned out that she wanted formula; not milk. The formula cost $25.

We bought it for her and upon exiting the store, another woman with her baby asked Mikey for money and he said no. She was angry and gestured to the other woman, making it clear that since we bought $25 formula for the other woman, we should give her some money too.

Not ten steps away was a man without legs – one of the thousands of land mine survivors – crawling on the street, asking for money. The blind guy was playing music, asking for money. And it goes on. I mean, on and on and on.

There are so many people that are hurting in Cambodia, and I mean, they are hurting in a way that is palpable. I wanted to help that mother because I could feel her desperation. It was coming off of her in waves. But did we really help her? Yes and no. We gave her a band-aid but we didn’t help to solve the bigger problem which she faces.

I felt that everywhere in Cambodia. You can give a dollar here and a dollar there (- and yes, they prefer to use US dollars), but the problems remain. The city closest to Cambodia’s greatest cultural treasure, Siem Reap, isn’t much different today than it was 8 years ago when I visited with my friend Nina. The physically disabled still roam the streets on their knees, begging and things remain heart-breakingly inaccessible.

Disability in Cambodia

Disability here in Cambodia is in its basic stage. Access is everything. People with physical disabilities can’t even get out of their houses, let alone the street. Forget about school! There just isn’t any access. I am assuming that people with Down syndrome are kept at home because I know there have to be people with Down syndrome here, yet I haven’t seen any. At All.

Knowing what I know about disability, about access, accommodation, work possibilities; knowing what I know about what disability can be – that given access and a chance, us people with disabilities are capable of ANYTHING – it is hard for me to just give a dollar. I want to give more. I want to give the knowledge that I have, coupled with the tools and resources that I have developed. I know that giving those will make a difference, far more of one than the dollar here and there.

So, it’s frustrating. And sad. And it breaks my heart to see what’s going on in Cambodia and not be able to do something about it right here and now.


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is a deaf blogger, global nomad, tech-junkie, cat-lover, Trekkie, Celto-Teutonic-peasant-handed mom of 3 (one with Down syndrome and one gifted 2E).
She likes her coffee black and hot.
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