Myanmar: How the community is changed by the social participation of persons with disabilities

Since 1999, AAR Japan has been engaging in a variety of activities to increase opportunities of social participation for persons with disabilities (PWDs)in Myanmar,for example,through vocational guidance as well as educational and employment support. AAR Japan has supported efforts led by the PWDs to deepen local people’s understanding of “disabilities” through the “Community Based Rehabilitation” approach in the suburb of Yangon since 2009. Resident staff Akemi KITA reports how the behaviors and mindsets of the local people have changed during the 5 years that AAR Japan has provided assistance to PWDs.

International staff Akemi KITA (right), listening to the conversations in a printing shop established by a PWDs group.

Changing the Community by Combining Individual's Power

Dala and Shwe Pyi Thar Townships in the suburb of Yangon, where AAR Japan is carrying out its activities, are both inhabited by many day laborers and people with economic constraints. The roads in the residential areas are unpaved and the steps in the public buses are high, posing barriers to PWDs. In addition to financial problems including issues such as the inability to pay for school tuition and supplies, the majority of PWDs are isolated at home due to the deeply rooted prejudice that they should be cared for all day by their family members or that they are not suitable to go to school.

To improve such situation, it is necessary for PWDs, their families, and the local community members to understand that anyone,disabled or not, should be given the opportunity to participate in society. In line with this, the development of barrier-free facilities and infrastructure are essential to improve the environment for PWDs.

In response, AAR Japan began its activities to raise awareness of local PWDs among stakeholders from the district administration and the education sector. First, groups of about ten people were created, mainly gathering PWDs and their family members. AAR Japan then held workshops to discuss PWDs’ rights to education and social participation and the merits of group over individual mobilization. Later, AAR Japan took part in regular group meetings to advise members on how to independently plan and organize various events to promote greater interaction with the local community. In addition, AAR Japan organized training in management and accounting for PWDs so that they can operate small-scale businesses, and provided initial start-up capital if needed. As a result, AAR Japan was able to demonstrate to the local community that PWDs are fit to work while creating work opportunities for PWDs.

AAR Japan has so far established 18 groups, consisting of 220 PWDs and their family members. Six groups have started new businesses including hair styling, tailoring, and typing/printing shops, among others.

At the beginning of the group meetings, AAR Japan staffs conduct ice breakers to facilitate the members to easily state their opinions. (February 25th,2013, Dala Township)

AAR Japan staff members participate in meetings held once a month and give advice on administrative skills such as taking minutes and bookkeeping. Pictured second from the left is Akemi KITA, international staff member (July 17th, 2014,  Shwe Pyi Thar Township)

The Roles PWDs Play in the Community

Members of “Latt Twae Phaw”engaging in clean-up activities at school. The activity provides work opportunities for PWDs. (September 30th, 2013)
Activities of the PWD groups have been changing the local peoples’ and the teachers’ understanding of the meaning of “disability”. “Latt Twae Phaw” (translated as“helping each other as partners”) is one of the groups established by AAR Japan in 2012 in Dala Township. It is comprised of 12 members, mainly including mothers of children with severe cases of cerebral palsy, along with PWDs, their family members, and persons with visual impairments. 

Following the establishment of Latt Twae Phaw, the group conducted clean-up activities in the neighborhood and schools in order to create opportunities for the group members and local residents to interact, and to raise awareness about PWDs. Working once every three months, the group’s activities encouraged schools that had previously never accepted children with disabilities, a total of six times. By regularly mowing grass and cleaning schools, the amount of conversation and interaction between the group members and the teachers has increased. In these conversations,the members also shared their thoughts to their counterparts including the following comments:“I thought that nothing could be done with children with disabilities not being able to go to school. However, having learned about “disability”, I found out that if each individual’s disability is properly considered, the child is able to get an education at school.”“I want there to be an environment in which PWDs are able to receive education as well.”

As a result, schools that previously were unaware of the need to educate children with disabilities actively had teachers participate in training sessions, in which they learned about disabilities as well as teaching methods for children with disabilities. These efforts resulted in schools arranging learning environments that enabled children with disabilities to study. Since June 2013, one child with disability has enrolled in public education.

Furthermore, the group’s handmade soaps sold for fundraising have gained a positive reputation among residents. The customers have inquired, “How did you make it?” and commented that “the soaps are really useful”, thus, leading to a wider interaction between the group and the local people. In August 2014, the members of Latt Twae Phaw will open a small grocery store with the support of AAR Japan.

We have also received positive reports from members of other groups,informing that their groups’ actions have changed the mindsets and behaviors of local people. “Local people have been willing to participate in field trips with PWDs, who usually have few chances to go out, and help them to see new places.When workshops and events are held, district leaders come to help call out for local people to participate.”

Members of Latt Twae Phaw learning how to make liquid soap. (May 14th, 2014)

A Place to Encourage and Stimulate

The existence of the group provides PWDs and their families a place to share their worries and encourage each other. One of the members, Moe Moe Khine (22 years old), who has a disability in both her legs, commented that she sometimes become negative and depressed about her disabilities, but feels better after confessing and discussing her worries with fellow members.

Initially for some PWDs, their limited academic education and exposure to people outside their families resulted in poor cooperation in group activities. However, most of them gradually got used to cooperating, and some were able to lead their groups and turn their members’ ideas into concrete outputs. AAR Japan will continue its assistance in order to make PWD groups take root in communities and lead the change in local people’s behaviors and mindsets toward disabilities.
Members of Latt Twae Phaw finished mowing the lawn of a school yard. These activities provide opportunities for members to interact with the local people.

Akemi KITA, AAR Japan Yangon, Myanmar Office (profile as of the date of the article).
KITA, who previously was stationed at the Zambia Office, has been working at the Yangon Office in Myanmar since February 2012. After working in a hospital as a clinical technologist, she studied public health in Canada and Thailand. KITA joined AAR Japan after returning to Japan. She originally comes from Nagasaki.
Japanese-English translation by Ms Satomi Yuki, Ms Yuki Fukuda and Ms Miku Kuroda
English editing by Ms Khan Kikkawa

The article on this page has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.