Myanmar: Aiming for a better future for children with disabilities

Since 2001, AAR Japan’s Yangon Office in Myanmar has been implementing a support programme for children with intellectual and physical disabilities called “Programme for Myanmar Children’s Tomorrow”. The aim is to assist children with disabilities to develop their full potential to lead a better life.

Two out of three children with disabilities do not go to school

Lin Thant (right in front), having difficulty walking, is in the classroom at his school.  On this day, the brother of Lin Thant (left in front) was also sent to the school.

The population of Myanmar is 50.28 million and there are 2.31 million persons with disabilities (4.5% of the total population). Approximately 230,000 children are living with disabilities (1.35% of the children’s population) * 1 (National Census in 2014).  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) published a report * 2 in 2016 regarding the situation of children with disabilities in Myanmar (September 27th, 2016).  According to the report:
·         Two out of three children with disabilities do not go to school.
·         Most schools do not have accessible facilities for children with disabilities.
·         For medical personnel, mdedical disability diagnosis systems for physician training are at an early stage of development and services and institutions for children with disabilities are scarece.
·         One out of ten children with disabilities have no friends.
·         As many as one in four children with disabilities (or 27%) do not have birth certificate.

  Due to the lack of support for children with disabilities, AAR Japan has been providing support services such as rehabilitation and education to children with disabilities.

Standing closely with them:   
Two distinct features of the Children’s Tomorrow Programme

Targeting 40 children with intellectual or physical disabilities living in Yangon, AAR Japan’s Yangon Office provides various support services through regular visits to their homes. The programme has two distinct features including the provision of support that fits children’s different disabilities and potential, and the continuity of support until the children reach 20 years old.  
The symptoms of children with disabilities are diverse. Some children have physical disabilities, such as an inability to use their arms and legs effectively or dysphagia (difficulties with swallowing), and others have intellectual disabilities or developmental disorders. Some people are bedridden, others can get on their legs and walk by leaning on things, and others can go to school. In order to bring out the best of children with disabilities, it is essential to provide support by taking into account the different nature and extent of disabilities, their capacity as well as their family environment.  
Aung Kyael Zin Kyaw (center in the front) and his family, receiving rehabilitation support from AAR Japan, together with Yoshio NAKAGAWA (left in front) and Mr. Kazuya Omuro, rehabilitation expert (right in front) (March 13th, 2018)
Required support for children with disabilities can change as they grow up.  In case of the support related to education, for the children attaining school age we explain repeatedly about the disabilities to schoolmasters and municipal personnel in charge of education to ensure that children are admitted to the school.  For the children who are already enrolled in school, we examine the appropriateness of seat arrangements and lavatory facilities for them, and for children with hand disabilities we talk with schoolmasters about the desired extension of written examination hours. Even if our support succeeds and the children are admitted to school, they may have to leave school if the schoolmaster’s position is filled by a successor who does not have an adequate understanding about children with disabilities.  In that case, we talk with the children’s family to ensure the admission to another school or the opportunity for out-of-school education.
In Myanmar, as shown in cases of children with disabilities, the more socially vulnerable people are, the more seriously they are affected by their environment.  Short-term support of one to three years is not sufficient to adequately aid the growth of the children.  Longer term support, with carefully planned measures such as keeping a watch over the growth of children with their families, is required.

Starting drills of grasping things:  Care by family
Aung Kyael Zin Kyaw (center in the front) practicing rehabilitation through grasping things, together with two physical therapists, AAR Japan’s local staff (right and left in the front) (March 13th, 2018)

Aung Kyael Zin Kyaw has congenital disabilities.  He has trouble grasping things, sitting without support and swallowing, and he is usually taken care of by his mother.  At the time of their home visit, physical therapists and local staff members of AAR Japan provide Aung Kyael Zin Kyaw with rehabilitation services. They also instruct his father and mother about the rehabilitation that can be done at home, so that it can be continued on a daily basis, with the aim that their child becomes able to do an increased number of things by himself in his daily life. Currently, he receives training on the use of his hands and fingers and for maintaining his sitting position in order to become able to eat by himself.

Admission to primary school was rejected many times, but …
Lin Thant (left) and his mother going to the school (June 15th, 2018)
Because of congenital disabilities Lin Thant needs a long time to write letters and cannot walk without assistance. Before AAR Japan provided support, his mother visited three primary schools to consult about his enrolment in the schools, but all of them rejected him because of his difficulty in writing on the blackboard.  His father was also about to give up on Lin Thant’s enrolment in school. Then, the staff of AAR Japan accompanied the mother to meet the schoolmasters and the municipal personnel in charge of education and reinitiated consultations.  As a result, Lin Thant was eventually accepted by one of the primary schools that had previously rejected him.  Lin Thant now tells his mother that he made friends at the school, that he was able to read poems aloud like other children, and what else happened during the school day. In particular, he was very glad to have been praised, in front of other children, for his picture that he drew in the class.
His mother says, “Our wish is that Lin Thant becomes as independent as possible in the future and is capable of overcoming difficulties, no matter what happens. We would like for him to receive a school education.” 
In 2017, all the 33 children supported by AAR Japan have access to education through the schools, through a day care center for children with disabilities, or through home studies.

Enhance social experiences and prevent parent isolation
Children and their family going on an excursion, together with Anna KAJINO, AAR Japan Tokyo Headquarters (January 7th, 2018)

In addition to education and rehabilitation support, AAR Japan organises a one-day excursion once a year with a view to providing the children with opportunities to have social experiences. AAR Japan also provides courses for children’s families to learn about disabilities and to share experiences among different families of children with disabilities.  In Myanmar, smart phones are now becoming more popular.  And yet, it is not easy to obtain information related to disabilities through smart phones or the internet, and groups of persons with disabilities (PWDs) or their families are not widely available. Mothers of children with disabilities have no one to consult with, and tend to worry about related difficulties in isolation.  The proper growth of children is largely affected by their mothers and families. Support for them is thus indispensable.  In 2017, AAR Japan organised an excursion, as well as a course for care activities and a training course on hygiene targeting guardians of the children.
Children went with their families on a one-day excursion to a theme park with a zoo, an orchid garden and a lake.  As the park is not a barrier-free environment, the group sometimes had difficulties when they moved.  (January 7th, 2018)

“Mummy, read this to me!”  A Treasure of Hta Ohnmar Wai

AAR Japan sometimes receives letters from programme supporters in Japan.
Children with disabilities tend to have only limited opportunities to interact with people, compared to other children of a similar age, so they are delighted when they receive letters from supporters coming all the way from Japan.  Hta Ohnmar Wai (12 years old), who has Down syndrome, feels proud after receiving a letter from Japan and keeps it like a precious treasure. 
Hta Ohnmar Wai received letters of support from Japan and asked her mother to read them many times (December 26th, 2017)

AAR Japan is facing challenges while continuing to provide support in accordance with the different needs of individual children. As there are only three local staff members of AAR Japan (two physical therapists and one social worker), only a limited number of children with disabilities can be supported at a given time. We are not yet able to approach the local communities to enhance their capacity and preparedness to accommodate children with disabilities and live together with them. In Myanmar, social environments for supporting children with disabilities are not yet well established.  Therefore, even if we hope that the children with disabilities can have more options, they are often not available.
What AAR Japan can do on its own is limited. In collaborating with other organizations for PWDs, we are nevertheless determined to continue supportive activities, standing alongside children and their families, so that each of these children can fully realize his or her potential in their lives. 

In fiscal year 2016, we received photographs and letters from supporters in Japan.  The representative of the Yangon residence office brought them back to Myanmar and handed them to Hta Ohnmar Wai (February 16th, 2017)


Yoshio NAKAGAWA, Yangon Office

After graduating from a university, he worked at a Japanese humanitarian organization for five years. He joined AAR Japan due to his desire to work in the field of international cooperation.  He resided in Tajikistan from March 2011 to September 2013.  Since October 2013, he has resided in Myanmar, working for AAR Japan’s Yangon Office.  Nakagawa’s hobby is jogging.  He is from Kanagawa Prefecture.

Note 1:  The figures are those appearing in the national census.  The real figures may be higher.