Changing Planet

Deaf Priorities in Cambodia: Planning for the Future

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — By the end of the day, the lime green wall was covered with fluttering pieces of white copy paper, some with expressive drawings, others with words in Khmer script. Some of the paper was taped together in groups based on their thematic content. Tired participants sat in clusters, some checking Facebook, others chatting with friends from distant provinces they hadn’t seen in some time. It was a long but important day for deaf people in Cambodia.

On Tuesday, participants from three of the NGOs serving signing deaf people in Cambodia, Deaf Development Programme, Epic Arts and Krousar Thmey, gathered in a room in a large building around the corner from the entrance to S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison. The purpose was a focus group to determine collective priorities for the next three years.

This was the first time deaf people from the three NGOs had come together to discuss their collective priorities, the everyday challenges of living as a deaf person in Cambodia, and how they wanted to address these challenges. In the past, DDP has conducted focus groups with participants from DDP, but this time the NGO was determined to have a more broad representation of deaf people in Cambodia. Participants came from three provinces: Kampong Cham, Kampot and Phnom Penh.

In the morning, 23 people engaged in group discussions with these guiding questions:

  • What are the problems and issues that deaf people face in Cambodia?
  • What is the everyday experience of a deaf person in Cambodia?

In the end, the group identified four issues as the most pressing: education, access to information and services, limited employment opportunities, and a lack of awareness and discrimination in the wider community. The group agreed there is a need for more advocacy and awareness to change attitudes and beliefs.


One of the participants presents his group's ranking of the barriers deaf people face as they try to participate in the political process in Cambodia, such as national elections, and their ideas for dismantling the barriers.
One of the participants presents his group’s ranking of the barriers deaf people face as they try to participate in the political process in Cambodia, such as national elections, and their ideas for dismantling the barriers.


Some participants raised the issue that deaf people have the right to a national identity card, as well as other documentation of Cambodian citizenship. These individuals remarked that as they conducted outreach work in villages in the provinces, they frequently encountered deaf people without have any form of identification, such as a national identity card. Some did not even have a name. Instead, they are called kor, “mute” or “closed mouth” in Khmer.


After reviewing the wall, two of the participants signed, "Movement" and "Advocacy Now!"
After reviewing the issues listed on the wall, two of the participants signed, “Movement” and “Advocacy Now!”
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.
  • Frederick Rogers

    Really cool article. As a Deaf person, I appreciate where they are and where they are going. god Bless them.

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