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Loeur Saveth is not the typical second grade student at her primary school in Kampong Chhnang Province, Cambodia. That is because Saveth is a 22-year-old woman. Saveth, the youngest of nine siblings, was born deaf and does not speak. Growing up, she never attended school because there were neither specialized schools nor teachers who knew how to support students with hearing loss in or around her community.
“I never went to school as there was not a special class for a child with a disability like me,” Saveth said in Cambodian Sign Language. “At that time, I felt disappointed as I really wanted to get high education.”
Saveth’s parents are old now, but they still work hard to earn their living by working as hired laborers; her parents are not often around to help Saveth at home. Her family has often struggled to make ends meet, and they cannot afford to send her to specialized classes in one of Cambodia’s larger cities. The financial barrier, coupled with long-standing social attitudes and expectations towards people with disabilities meant that Saveth would have to stay home, and forget about ever attending school.
Fortunately, things were about to change for Saveth. In 2017, Krousar Thmey, a local NGO providing education for deaf and blind children, began implementing a project in the nearby village of Saveth’s cousin. When her cousin Sambo learned of the project, she immediately thought of Saveth. She asked Saveth to come stay at her house with her and her grandmother so Saveth could get involved in the project activities.
“I really felt sorry for her, and wanted her to study, so I asked her to stay with me and my grandmother,” explained Sambo. “At first, I had difficulties communicating with her because I did not know sign language. I sent her to school, and I also learned some sign language in order to communicate with her.”
While things seemed to be improving, there were still challenges to overcome. Saveth felt very self-conscious because she was the only adult student in the school. In addition, the three kilometer walk to school was frightening and dangerous for her to do alone, as she could not hear the cars and motorbikes speeding by. Although she wanted to learn, these factors led her to sometimes skip her classes.
Another problem was that although the teachers learned basic sign language from the NGO, they did not fully know how to support children’s learning. They lacked understanding and training on teaching children with disabilities, or students who had fallen behind in their studies. In November 2018, with funding from Save the Children Korea, Save the Children in Cambodia and the Provincial Office of Education in Kampong Chhnang Province helped to fill the gap by providing a series trainings to teachers and head teachers on the development of appropriate lesson plans and the development of effective learning and teaching materials to support children with disabilities and struggling students. They support overaged children to attend school.
The teacher has encouraged Saveth to focus on studying and keep attending classes, and he encourages her young classmates to make her feel welcome in the classroom. In addition, he has produced a great deal of learning and teaching materials for the class, so it is easy for the students to quickly learn letters and numbers. The materials are facilitating learning, and are made to be accessible and useful for all students, regardless of disability.
“Saveth is a good student in my class and always asks questions to clarify what she does not understand,” said Khunthea, Soveth’s teacher. “There are a few deaf students in my class, I ask them to often talk with Soveth, and also she can write to communicate with other [hearing] children. This helps Saveth reduce her thoughts of being alone and overaged in the class.”
Saveth receives good scores in the class and she has been asked to be a sign language mentor to help teach other students with hearing loss. Her teacher has asked her classmates who live near Saveth’s house to come to school together, so they can all help each other stay safe while walking to school.
“I am very happy and I will work hard to support them and don’t make my teachers lose hope,” said Saveth. “I would like to be a tailor and artist in the future.”