To read on Myanmar Times website:
“Listen to us”: Myanmar’s forgotten people
By Htike Nanda Win | Friday, 03 March 2017
Ma Htet Htet Wai is a tall, round woman, with a caramel-coloured complexion. On the day I visit she is wearing thanaka and her hair is neatly tied up in a decorative headdress comb. The 23-year-old greets me with a broad smile as she begins talking about her daily life – about going to the markets, cleaning and cooking.
But suddenly she falls silent.
She turns to her mother, who points to a red chair and says, “tell your elder sister what colour this chair is.” She looks carefully at the red chair and responds: “Green.”
Ma Htet Htet Wai is intellectually disabled; she cannot remember colours nor tell the time, she has trouble making complete sentences.
Her family is unsure about the nature or extent of her disability. To them, she is just “intellectually disabled”.
There are a range of intellectual disabilities including down syndrome, fragile x syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.
Persons with intellectual disabilities can have difficulty learning, retaining information, moving and speaking.
Due to their slower rate of learning and different abilities, many intellectually disabled individuals in Myanmar are stigmatised by their families and communities, and face discrimination at school and in the workplace.
Though Ma Htet Htet Wai can copy words by looking at them, she cannot read. She can only recall things learned five minutes prior. Because of this, she has faced many challenges with public education in Myanmar. According to her mother Daw Tin Tin Aye, she only passed the eighth grade thanks to a fractured education system.
“Private classes didn’t accept my daughter at all. Only a few government schools accepted her and when I went and asked the teachers why my daughter had passed without actually learning, they replied that [our education system] doesn’t focus on quality of work, only quantity,” Daw Tin Tin Aye said.
“The system recognises physical disabilities … But for an intellectually disabled person, the system is very bad,” she admitted.
According to the 2014 Myanmar census, 4.6 percent of the country’s population or roughly 2,368,300 people live with a disability. In Myanmar, disability is categorised into four official classifications: physical disability, vision impairment, hearing impairment and intellectual disability. Seventeen percent of disabled people in Myanmar, around 402,600 people, have an intellectual disability.
The community of intellectually disabled in Myanmar face a unique set of experiences and challenges compared to the wider disabled community – there is widespread lack of education about intellectual disabilities and a severe lack of special facilities to suit their needs.
According to Colonel Myo Myint, chair of the Myanmar Intellectual Disability Organisation, intellectual disabilities are among the most misunderstood disabilities in Myanmar.
“Previously, intellectually disabled individuals were called ‘mentally deficient’ or ‘mad’. They could not be taught. They could not enter into the social world and they were usually hidden away at home.”
“Parents often feel ashamed of having such children which is why these children mostly stay indoors. Some parents can’t afford to stay with them and have to go to work, leaving these children behind with just food and water. Gradually these children become weaker and weaker,” he said.
Without proper access to specialised educational facilities or care services, these children fall behind in social development; they become socially and mentally withdrawn. Simply put, the lives of these children become “completely ruined” said Colonel Myo Myint.
One of the ways to rectify this situation is to increase societal exposure of intellectually disabled individuals and their families, said U Myat Thu Winn who serves as both the general secretary to the Myanmar Federation of person with Disabilities and the chair of the Shwe Minthar Foundation, an intellectually disabled advocacy group.
“When talking about intellectually disabled children, there is a lot to consider. For a physically disabled person, it is difficult to stand up and walk. But such things are not the problems faced by intellectually disabled children. They find it hard to learn and earn a livelihood. They depend heavily on their parents. When compared to the difficulties of physically disabled persons, the severity of intellectually disabled people’s suffering seems to be greater,” U Myat Thu Win said.
He explained that while there are apparatuses already in place to support physically disabled people, for intellectually disabled individuals the infrastructure is lacking.
Sixteen-year-old experiences Salai Banny Bwe, who volunteers with intellectually disabled people, said that these individuals are also left out of most human rights conversations.
“Intellectually disabled children have been losing many rights. They have been left behind in every sense,” he noted.
And it isn’t just intellectually disabled children who face discrimination. Their families often have to support their children financially, mentally and physically; many have to quit their jobs or stop running businesses in order to provide adequate care.
A rocky road to inclusion
Established in 2004, the Myanmar National Sports Organisation for People with Intellectual Disabilities provides opportunities for intellectually disabled people to publicly play sports and connect with other intellectually disabled individuals.
One mother of an intellectually disabled son reflects on how her son’s demeanor has changed for the better after participating in a sporting event.
“Before the event I didn’t know how to bring my son into large crowds. He doesn’t talk much at home… My son’s world is his TV, his own mind, his toys. Now he is very happy to play with other children and is excited to go to the playground.
He is happy that he has many friends,” said Ma Thuzar Oo.
“Winning a [Myanmar National Sports] prize doesn’t matter,” she continued. “Until now, this is the only sporting event which intellectually disabled people dare to come out in public to participate in. My son feels like he is being socially accepted here.”
According to Colonel Myo Myint, intellectually disabled athletes have represented Myanmar at the World Summer Games, the Asia Level Games and Paralympics. However, while the Ministry of Sports has set aside a certain amount of funding for disabled athletes, the funds are still too low to cover costs of including intellectually disabled participants.