Human Rights

The Path to a Brighter Future for Burma’s Disabled

By Zarni Mann 3 December 2014

MANDALAY — A diverse crowd gathered on the Manawyaman playground in Mandalay on Tuesday evening, peering expectantly down the unusually still road. An explosion of cheer and joyous tears erupted at the sight of a column of wheelchairs approaching the grounds.

A small but determined group of 10 people left Rangoon by wheelchair a little more than two weeks ago, making their way to Mandalay via Naypyidaw, the nation’s capital. There they were joined by 12 others who accompanied them for the remainder of the journey, which was timed to end just before the UN-designated International Day of People with Disabilities, on Dec. 3.

Propelled by their own power, participants traversed more than 400 miles with the message that people living with disabilities are strong, capable and deserving of human rights and dignity.

“I’m so happy to see the crowd cheering us on, it’s very encouraging,” said Kyaw Thu Lin, a 36-year-old participant from Kachin State. With tears in his eyes, he explained that the rally has been held for the past three years, but he had never seen so much public support and appreciation.

“I think people are beginning to understand disability, more and more each year,” he said.

The event was coordinated by Rangoon-based Shwe Min Thar Foundation, a non-governmental agency that aims to improve the lives of those living with disability in Burma. The foundation said the goal of the tour is to raise awareness along the way, demonstrating the courage and endurance of a group of people so often discriminated against by the general public.

Disability is sometimes seen as shameful in Burmese communities, but the Shwe Min Thar Foundation hopes greater exposure will show people that disabled persons deserve all the rights of their fellow citizens.

One of those rights, participants said, is the right to education. There are few schools for disabled children in Burma, and even fewer catering to specific impairments. Rangoon is home to the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf and the Myanmar Christian Fellowship of the Blind, but elsewhere in Burma there are very few options for specialized learning opportunities. According to a national disability survey conducted by the government in 2010, there are about 1.2 million people in Burma living with disabilities, and about 46,000 of them are school-aged children. Only about 2,250 of them were enrolled in schools, according to 2012 figures from the Ministry of Education.

While the government’s Department of Social Welfare, as well as some NGOs, has established several dedicated schools and daycare centers, many parents are still reluctant to send their disabled children to school out of fear of social stigma, according to Kyaw Win, Mandalay’s divisional officer for the department.

“Disability is not shameful,” he declared. “People with disabilities have lives and they have rights.”

Breaking social barriers, he said, is key to improving lives. Kyaw Win is confident that results are starting to show: More people are enrolling in specialized schooling year by year, while the size and scope of the department is also increasing, he said.

“The biggest obstacle is finance and infrastructure. Expanding the schools, daycare centers and capacity to create a disabled-friendly environment will require a lot of funding,” he added.

By looks of the turnout at celebrations in Mandalay on Wednesday, people are becoming more sympathetic to the cause. Hundreds of friends and family members showed up to support about 400 disabled children at events marking the internationally sanctioned day of celebration. The children showcased talents such as traditional dance and music. Parents never looked prouder, some tearing up at the sight of their children onstage.

“I’m so happy to see my grandson performing the traditional dance,” said the grandmother of one child on stage. She explained that the family “felt sad for him” when the child was born with Down syndrome, a developmental disorder that can cause physical and mental abnormalities and is highly stigmatized. “But now, I’m so proud of him,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Wednesday’s events were a step in the right direction toward a welcoming world for the disabled, but one aid worker and father of a physically disabled boy said that even as attitudes change, many practical steps still need to be taken to make life better.

“It’s not enough to just teach our children to live their lives, and giving them encouragement one day every year is not enough,” said J Nyi Nyi. Burma still lacks infrastructure that would make life easier, like handrails and smooth sidewalks.

“Even at the international airport, there’s no toilet for the disabled,” he pointed out. “We still need to do a lot to create a barrier-free world.”