Putting ability before disability in Thailand and Cambodia


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A school in Thailand is teaching the disabled to cultivate mushrooms. Click on the photo to watch video clip showing the preparation of sawdust bags where the mushrooms grow.

Click on the photo to watch video clip showing disabled farmers working in rice fields in Cambodia

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Farmers with disabilities should be considered farmers first and people with disabilities second. This is the message from FAO on the International Day of Disabled Persons, 3 December. FAO-sponsored programmes in two Asian countries have shown that farmers and other rural workers with disabilities can be active and self-sufficient while at the same time providing food for their families and communities.

"Watching these people apply themselves, not only in food production but also in their everyday tasks, you realize that their abilities, energy and resourcefulness are without limits," says Lawrence Jacobson, FAO Focal Point on Disability Matters.
FAO database on the rural disabled

Since 1999, FAO has been coordinating a mushroom production training course for disabled people in conjunction with Thailand's Department of Public Welfare. The course teaches the basics about producing, processing and selling mushrooms, as well as how to build a mushroom house that guarantees the necessary dark, moist conditions for growing the crop.
Mushroom production training for disabled people

The skills give disabled people the opportunity to earn a regular income so they can be self-sufficient. So far, almost 50 people have graduated from the three-month course, and plans are in the works to extend the programme to neighbouring countries in Asia.

"My life has totally changed," says Oradee Silachai, 20, who was confined to a wheel chair following a car accident. "I used to keep myself in my room. I thought I was nothing. But when I came to the training, the ability that had been locked inside came out. I can do many things, not just mushroom cultivation. Now, my disability is not a problem any more." Ms Silachai's success in mushroom cultivation and her enthusiasm about the course led her to become a trainer at the school.

Graduate Suphol Noivong, 34, helps to support his wife and five-year-old son with his mushroom business. He remembers having doubts that he would even be accepted into the programme considering the severe damage a nerve gas leak at his previous job caused to his legs and overall health. But his enthusiasm won over the selection committee, and within one year of graduation he had already set up two mushroom houses.

The course includes men and women, aged 20 to 35 years old, with disabilities ranging from visual and hearing impairments to amputated limbs. Some trainees had more difficulty than others, but they met the challenge by working in teams. And the results were impressive. All the trainees graduated from the course, and three quarters of them have already started a home mushroom business. Family members generally pitch in to help build the mushroom house.

Meanwhile, projects to empower the disabled go beyond mushroom production. In Cambodia, FAO has started a pilot project to involve the disabled in its Community Integrated Pest Management Programme, which helps farmers to improve yield while reducing dependence on expensive and environmentally destructive chemicals. "We noticed that disabled farmers were hovering around our farmer field schools, watching, looking, but not taking part in the main activities," explained Robert Nugent, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) officer for Cambodia. Instead of forming a separate course, Mr Nugent decided to try including them in the existing one.

"Because of their disability, they seem to be ignored by the society," says Ngin Chlay, national IPM Coordinator. "This programme brings them back into society, working with other farmers and giving them the knowledge to produce better rice for their own consumption." The course also encourages farmers to form networks to help each other promote ecological farming systems.

FAO is hoping that the success of the programmes in Thailand and Cambodia will inspire other projects around the world. "The knowledge of these farmers is hugely under-utilized," says Robert Nugent. "When you unleash it, the power is incredible".

1 December 2000

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