Disability as Big Business in Phnom Penh

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia– On almost every side street in Phnom Penh there is a sign, sometimes several in a row, advertising massages by blind people. In addition to these ubiquitous blind massage businesses, there are also shops advertising clothing and accessories “made by people with disabilities.”

One of the signs in one of the businesses that train and hire deaf people. Another sign says, "disabled artisans and deaf people."
A sign in one of the businesses that train and hire deaf people. Another sign in the shop says, “Please support disabled artisans and deaf people.” Photo by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

If I see a sign advertising merchandise made by people with disabilities, I have gone into the shop to check out the merchandise and to look for people with disabilities on the shop floor. If I don’t see anyone with an obvious disability, I become somewhat suspicious; however, I recognize that there are people with hidden disabilities so I often rely on my instincts, based on how the salesperson responds to me and the appearance of the shop, as well as how it labels its products on the shelves, if at all.

I am all too aware of how vulnerable people with disabilities and deaf people are to exploitation. I am inclined to be wary of businesses that use the “made by people with disabilities” marketing approach, a wariness intensified by its currency in Cambodia. In my thinking, this marketing strategy is a form of exploitation as it creates exceptional subjects; however, in reality, this marketing strategy may be more beneficial than harmful, especially in this age of what I call, after David Harvey and his fast capitalism, fast social justice.

Fast social justice is characterized by retweeting tweets by activists, reposting stories on Facebook, and buying shoes or eyeglasses from companies that claim they send a second pair to disadvantaged people without an in-depth investigation of the actual impact of these practices.

Development, humanitarianism and NGOs are a particular academic (and practical) interest of mine, and sometimes, you just know too much. However, there are some businesses that, while they may use this marketing approach, do good things and pay deaf people and people with disabilities a relatively fair wage.

Today and yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting a few local organizations that train, then employ deaf people. I was pleased by what I saw. It wasn’t The Jungle, nor was it the Dickensian squalor I had feared.

In a bright and airy room in a repurposed school building, deaf and hearing women work together making bags and clothing.
In a bright and airy room in a repurposed school building, deaf and hearing women work together making bags and clothing. Photo by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

I appreciate the willingness of these businesses to open their production floors to a researcher they had never met. I take their transparency as a positive sign that they are not exploiting people with disabilities and/or deaf people.

Indeed, Virginia, there just may be some good people out there after all.

Note: I recognize that in the North Atlantic context, some deaf people consider themselves a linguistic minority; others label themselves as a person with a disability. Recently, some people prefer the term, “disabled.’”Some people also identify as deafblind, deafdisabled and/or hard of hearing. It is not my intention to exclude or mislabel anyone by the language I am using in this post. I am consciously echoing the language as used in this specific context: ideologies and practices of disability and deaf in contemporary Cambodia.

As always, for more on this project and my lived experience  in Cambodia, follow along on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH and Instagram @erinmharrelson.

Changing Planet

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Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented.