The power of collective support for People with Disabilities in Laos
by Thena Posyenthong, Linking, Learning and Amplifier Officer, Voice in Laos
‘’I would like for people with disabilities to have an activity or meeting every month,’’ shared Buakham Sonekeo, a Nadee Village Coordinator for Strengthening and Equality of People with Disability and Community Development Project (SEPCoD) led by the People with Disability Development Association or PDDA in Xiengkhuang Province. Buakham shared to the Voice Laos team during a visit that she hopes to see a regular gathering for people with disabilities so they do not feel alone. PDDA focuses on supporting the empowerment of people with disabilities and older persons to access quality health and rehabilitation services.
Laos is the most bombed country in the world between December 1964 and March 1973, where at least 260 million bombs were dropped. Millions of unexploded cluster bombs remain scattered throughout Laos, and Xiengkhuang province is one of the areas with the most unexploded bombs. This becomes a major fear for the citizens of Xiengkhuang, especially with a history of acquired disabilities due to this. At the same time, being a person with disability in unexploded bomb areas makes them more vulnerable.
Phoummi Supmany and Buakham Sonekeowho are two survivors of such incident.
‘’I was bombed while my children and I were selling surplus steel to Vietnamese buyers. The buyer died immediately, and my two children and I were disabled,” recalled Buakham.
It was torture for her; she could not walk at first and needed to crawl. She was embarrassed to go out to meet people. But later on, with support from a number of organisations, her mind gradually opened and has becomes their village’s Coordinator on initiatives relevant to people with disabilities.
Phoummi, on the other hand, is a Village Coordinator from Natau village. “I was disabled since 1981 because of the war. Being a person with disability has given me many difficulties. It is especially hurtful when employers always refused us because of our disability,” shared by Mr. Phoummi.
‘’I felt better when I joined SEPCoD. I didn’t know there’s any organisation assisting people with disabilities. I joined the activity at Phonsavanh (the capital area of Xiengkhuang province). They had an awareness-raising discussion on the rights of people with disabilities. We have our own dignity, like others. Society doesn’t hate us. I met many people who are on the same page. I realised one time while attending a training that there are also many people facing similar challenges. And now, I am assigned to be the Village Coordinator for activities in relation to people with disabilities,” shared by Buakham.
During meetings in Nadee and Natau villages, the Village Coordinators get the opportunity to educate and inform the communities about the rights of people with disabilities. However, the information has not reached everyone in the community, causing problems for people with disabilities, particularly regarding tax exemptions.
According to the law for People with Disabilities No. 57 Article 25 Sec. 7, people with disabilities have the benefits of tax reduction or exemption, exemption from services charges, among others. However, when it comes to practice, some local authorities do not fully understand the policies. This results to inaccessibility of the benefits. An official ID declaring one’s disability is required, but the process to acquire such is too complicated. In relation to this, Phoummi raised the importance of giving benefits to the immediate family or carers of persons with disabilities.
In Laos, people with disabilities face many challenges in accessing healthcare, education and employment opportunities. One thing that can help overcome these challenges is through community support. Through the meetings and trainings supported by the PDDA, Mrs. Buakham and Mr. Phoummi both understand the importance of community. They believe that by coming together, people with disabilities can share their experiences, provide each other with emotional support, and together overcome shared challenges, helping them feel confident that they are not left behind.