Inclusive Schooling in Rural Cambodia for Young Females With Disabilities

Amanda Ajodhia, Ph.D.


Phkar, Romchang, Chek, Cat, Aada, and Sreynich (pseudonyms) are neuro-developmentally disabled young ladies living in rural Kampot, Cambodia. They range in age from 15 to 26 years old and attend a segregated disability class facilitated by a local Cambodian nongovernmental organization, and located within a public primary school. Aada, Cat, and Chek have Down syndrome (DS), Phkar has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and Romchang and Sreynich have cerebral palsy with some mild features of ASD.


These young ladies began attending school for the first time over the last few years. Previously, they had not received any form of education, remaining at home in their farming communities and villages approximately 5-10 kilometers away from school. With insights gained through group interviews, this article shares the perspectives of these six females as they explore their schooling experiences, inclusion, and disability.

As these young ladies shared their schooling experiences, it was clear how much they enjoy opportunities to learn and engage in activities with peers; they describe school as a fun space. Some of their favorite activities at school include reading, playing with friends, exercising, spending time outdoors, running, playing football, painting, practicing Khmer writing, and looking at flowers. Numeracy and math is also important for some of them, especially because they learn about money.


learning about money and math

learning about money and math

Writing khmer

Writing khmer

Aada's drawing of her teacher, her best friend at school

Aada's drawing of her teacher, her best friend at school

Romchang's drawing of her desire to be alone

Romchang's drawing of her desire to be alone

Phkar particularly noted that she enjoyed learning how to spend money. She likes school because she wants to learn about math so she can go to work in Thailand. Cat enjoys coming to school to study, particularly because her sister also attends the school. Friendships are an important motivator, and Aada happily stated that her best friend at school is her teacher. Many of these young ladies indicated that coming to school made them smile. Seemingly, they feel comfortable and engaged at school.

Although all the young ladies report positive schooling experiences, some expressed a wish to have more Khmer games/play incorporated into their learning. They also desire longer recess times, wishing for a full hour instead of only 15 minutes. Chek specifically expressed her love of recess; she enjoys cleaning the school yard, pulling out dead grass, in order to plant flowers in front of her classroom. Outdoor recess is one of the few opportunities for these young ladies to socialize with non-disabled peers, in addition to occasionally attending drawing lessons in the regular classrooms with non-disabled students. Chek and Romchang communicated their strong desire to learn in the same classroom as the non-disabled students on a consistent basis.

Some of the young ladies also reported concerns about school, such as mean or “bad” teachers, engaging in particular life-skill lessons (e.g., brushing teeth), and classmates disrupting their concentration (e.g., classmates making loud noises). Additionally, they described moments of bullying and discrimination within their schools and communities. For example, a boy in Cat’s segregated class often hits her and it makes her feel angry. Romchang is called names and mocked by a child in the village due to her physical appearance. These experiences occur often, making Romchang distraught and angry, and she does not know how to respond. She dislikes playing with other young people, and much prefers playing alone. Aada also experiences discrimination within her community, indicating that people in her village blame her because she has a disability.

During our time together, we also discussed personal understandings of disability. Sreynich, Romchang, Aada, and Chek all report having some awareness of disability and impairment, and identify as having a disability. Romchang, the eldest of the group, relates disability to her physical impairment. She described her difficulty walking and using the toilet. Romchang did not enjoy sharing details about her disability; due to embarrassment and shame, she refrains from such discussions with others. She poignantly explained being unhappy with her disability, because the challenges in movement and self-care she experiences impact her ability to go outside and participate in social activities. She passionately expressed a desire to be “normal.” Chek reported her leg is too long, which she feels is a form of disability. Sreynich noted that she does not mind having a disability; she has friends at school who also have disabilities, but she also plays with non-disabled students. Phkar, on the other hand, confidently stated that she does not have a disability.

Although understanding conceptualizations of disability and impairment, many of the ladies struggled to share their understandings specifically regarding ASD and DS. For example, Sreynich expressed knowing about ASD, but could not describe what it means; Aada reported never learning about ASD and has no awareness of the disability. Many of the participants were unaware of what DS was, except Chek and Phkar who briefly mentioned that it relates to the face and eyes. Aada and Cat, who both have DS, stated that they did not learn about this disability. When I asked whether they had DS, neither provided a response; this may suggest either some uncertainty pertaining to the disability and/or a sense of hesitation to attribute the disability to themselves and their identity. Chek, who has DS, explained that the face is different and then said “me,” suggesting awareness of her disability. She expressed an appreciation for having DS, stating that she “likes it.” Her response highlights a sense of pride and identity associated with her disability.


With the support of various NGOs, some integration classrooms are operating within public schools in Cambodia (i.e., segregated classrooms for disabled students located on public school premises), allowing neuro-developmentally disabled young people some level of socialization with non-disabled students during certain activities (e.g., recess). However, many of these classrooms primarily focus on building life-skills knowledge, rather than academic knowledge.

The young ladies do experience discrimination within their communities, triggering feelings of anger, sadness, and shame and most likely affecting their levels of esteem. Within rural Cambodia, Khmer words used to describe neuro-developmentally disabled individuals are often derogatory and relate to religious cultural beliefs (e.g., evil spirits, poor karma, “mad pig”). Due to challenges in carrying out certain expected cultural responsibilities (e.g., contributing to family income, marriage, etc.), many neuro-developmentally disabled Cambodians experience societal segregation, exclusion, and discrimination.


Given these attitudes about disabilities, and more specifically neuro-developmental disabilities, it is understandable that some of these participants feel embarrassed about their disabilities and express a wish to be “normal.” Disabled young people frequently strive for normalcy and sameness, associating negative perceptions toward diversity. Such hesitation regarding personal difference, including disability, possibly surfaces from predominant official discourses on diversity immersed within schools and society. Although notions of difference and normalcy change depending on the socio-cultural, political, and historical context of a country, what should remain constant is continuous school support for student diversity.

While segregated special education classrooms are not ideal, in a developing country’s journey toward inclusive schools they may operate as a starting point to, first, help alleviate the stigmas associated with diversity by providing access to education within rural areas, and, second, become catalysts for strengthening advocacy and awareness relating to disability and difference, enriching the social and learning experiences of disabled young people, and ameliorating negative perceptions and bullying. Hopefully, the educational and social experiences shared by this group of young ladies with neuro-developmental disabilities is shifting understandings within their particular context, in which diversity is no longer seen as adversity.


Ajodhia-Andrews, A. (2016). Voices and visions from ethnoculturally diverse young people with disabilities. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Ajodhia-Andrews, A., & Berman, R. (2009). Exploring school life from the lens of a child who does not use speech to communicate. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(5), 931-951.

Carter, J. (2009). Preparing for the journey: A cooperative approach to service provision for children with intellectual disabilities in Cambodia. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Hagar.

Moreira, R.A. (2011). Intellectual disability in rural Cambodia: Cultural perceptions and families’ challenges. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: New Humanity.


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