Bringing the sonic dimension to deaf children in Cambodia

Have you ever entered a beehive? I do not. However, this is the feeling that overwhelms me as I walked into the premises of the Institute for Specialized Education for Deaf and Blind Children in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

There are children everywhere, of course, but not only…. Fifteen or so busy Barangs sitting on a small corner of the table, seemingly entering precious data into a laptop…who picks out mini electronics…who clap their hands loudly behind the backs of the children who remain focused.

I’m a little confused but quickly realize that what seems to be a thrill is a well-rehearsed ballet, where everyone is well-versed in the task at hand.

In fact, I am immersed in the 38th Mission for Deaf Children in Cambodia (ESC) which is a French NGO which, as its name suggests, provides assistance to deaf children in the Kingdom.

Olivier Lovell, otolaryngologist, explains that the children around me all have severe or profound deafness. The Ministry of Education provides them with specialized education in the five schools spread across the country (two in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap, Battambang and Kampong Cham).

It was Benoît Duchâteau-Arminjon, founder of the NGO Krousar Thmey, who established specialized schools for blind and then deaf children in Cambodia at the end of the war. He formally handed them over to the Cambodian Ministry of Education in 2019, which has managed them ever since.

Enfants Sourds du Cambodge has been helping since 2001 because, even if things are getting better, hearing loss is not a priority in the face of the huge tasks facing Cambodia. The number of otolaryngologists is few, and otolaryngologists and speech therapists are almost non-existent.

Each year, ESC runs two 3-week campaigns. It is a matter of creating a budget for each child, adapting and checking their equipment, and replacing it if necessary. Five schools, spread across the country, more than 500 children to see in three weeks, I understand now that there is no time to lose.

I’m even a little confused to bother with Kristen, the audiologist’s work. Who takes care of the fifteen-year-old batina. This little girl’s hearing loss is profound, even as high as 90% on the left. Installed since 2014. She was 7 years old. Barely back in school, she was geared towards special education and had ESC support ever since. Kristen has to check if her devices are working or not. These concentrations of technology filter, amplify, and regulate the audio signals. But like everything, it is subject to wear, loss, and deterioration.

Thanks to them, 15-year-old Tina can hear. a little. And since she can hear, she can talk. a little. Since tracking is not done until children enter school, precious years are lost in the age when their brains learn to distinguish sounds.

Cambodian deaf children
Thena, 15, has had hearing aids since the age of seven by deaf children in Cambodia

At school, we make use of what children have in terms of hearing. We cannot speak if we do not hear. They are also taught sign language and also to distinguish the noises of everyday life, the arrival of a motorbike for example.

Genevieve has been there from the start. She is the origin of the association with her husband Jean-Paul Beraha, an audiologist, Dr. Michel Berry, an otolaryngologist and his wife Ravi, a French-Cambodian pharmacist.

She explained to me that after the war, the country had to be completely rebuilt. Among the thousands of helpless children, the disabled suffered an even more terrible fate. In Cambodian society, and according to Buddhist principles, disability was seen as an inevitable. And leave the disabled child alone.

Fortunately, the work of Benoît Duchâteau-Arminjon made it possible to gradually change the way these children were viewed.

Genevieve explains to me that the ultimate goal of ESC is for Cambodians to be able to take care of themselves.

The current project of the NGO is to establish diploma training courses for audiologists in the country. In partnership with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Education, the ESC and the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier are already working on it, with the support of Amplifon*.

The NGO is currently training audio and video technicians, including Sopheak and Sunhieng, who have become trainers themselves. Similarly, for several years now, specialist teachers have been receiving education in phonetics under the National Institute of Specialized Education.

Cambodian deaf children
Sopheak and Sunhieng audiovisual technicians trained by NGOs who in turn became trainers

Meanwhile, the volunteers are busy around the children. Everyone takes full responsibility for their trip. For each mission, the NGO needs 500 prostheses and 10,000 batteries.

You have allowed the 14 members of this 38 expedition to finish their work, and tomorrow they will be in Kampong Cham to provide the sonic dimension to the children who have been denied it.

* Amplifon is an international hearing group that distributes hearing aids.

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