Lead Photo by Miguel Jeronimo
“I want to show people that yes, I have a disability, but I have skills,” says Chan Phoun, a Kampot-based artist and illustrator who lost his arm in an accident at a brick factory when he was 13 years old. “Some people don’t understand. They think that a disabled person can’t do anything. But it’s not true. We can do everything that any other person can do.”
Phoun is one of 18 artists taking part in From Disability to Visibility, an exhibition curated by photographer Miguel Jeronimo that shines a light on the daily lives, careers and aspirations of people living with disabilities in Cambodia.
Opening on Saturday 20th February at FT Gallery, the collection also features work by videographer Mech Choulay, sculptor Bor Hak, painters Mil Chankrim, Kim San and Adana Mam Legros, illustrators Limhay Chum, Jin, Vodka, Ket Monnyreak and Sukunthkanika, block print artist Morn Chear, and photographers Ten Borey, Erick Gonzalez, Tytaart and Raphael Pech, the latter in collaboration with Apsara dancer Sokha Chim. Guests at the opening will also be treated to a dance performance by the inclusive arts organisation, Epic Arts.
Phoun, whose intricate, black-and-white illustrations typically knit together religious iconography, dream-imagery and scenes from rural life, has for this project transferred to a more personal canvas: bricks. In one installation, stacks of painted bricks come together to form a mosaic wall of interlinked chains and hands – referencing the traumatic loss of his hand in the factory accident and the barriers he faced afterwards. But this is a wall that Phoun – who only discovered his talent for art after the loss of his hand – can take apart, put together, and turn into any kind of image he wants. In keeping with the theme of the exhibition, it becomes a symbol of empowerment, rather than tragedy.
In Cambodia, it’s rare to see disabled people represented as anything other than victims, if at all. The exhibition title From Disability to Visibility highlights the fact that so many disabled Cambodians are still hidden from view – so much so, in fact, that it’s hard to know what percentage of the population they represent. What is certain is that tens of thousands of Cambodians have lost limbs to landmine explosions since 1979, and millions more self-report as having some form of physical or mental disability. Far too often, these people are held back by a lack of support or accessible infrastructure, as well as social stigma.
“It can be scary and we can be shy, because sometimes people say bad things to us,” says Phoun. “For this exhibition, I think it’s great – a good time to show people different. To get them to understand about disability.”
The individuals featured in Miguel’s photographs come from all walks of life, from nurses to roadside mechanics. One rice farmer, who lost a leg in a landmine explosion, continues working as normal with the help of a prosthetic leg provided by an NGO, even scaling palm trees to collect sap for palm sugar. Another man, who is blind, works as a computer scientist and developer at a government ministry, using audio commands to navigate IT systems – although Miguel says he’s so fast and adept at using voice control and touch screens that he barely needs them.
“The whole idea of the exhibition is showing that these are normal people. If they get the chance and opportunity – if the society is inclusive enough – they can excel like any other person in their field,” says Miguel. The key, he believes, is to stop thinking of people as disabled by impairments and rather disabled by society, or by the physical realities of their environment.
A person in a wheelchair has limited mobility because of a lack of ramps, for example, rather than their inability to walk. A deaf person is shut out from watching the news if there is no sign language interpreter, not because they can’t hear. When urban planners, institutions and technology companies recognise that better design can fix these everyday problems, disabled people, in effect, are no longer disabled.
Cambodia still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity. Its cities and public transport systems aren’t set up to make getting around easy for people with limited mobility. People born with a disability often face social stigma, including the cruel suggestion that they did something to deserve this in a previous life. Families sometimes shut disabled children away in their homes, either out of shame or to protect them from harm, preventing them from getting the education or employment they need to be independent. Just half of Cambodian youths with disabilities have ever attended school, compared to 94% of able-bodied children – and only around two in every thousand disabled children go on to complete university-level education. Given these challenges, it’s little surprise that Cambodians with disabilities are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.
Everyday technologies like ride-hailing apps, messaging platforms, audio books and phone accessibility features are changing all that, offering people with disabilities vastly more control over how they get around, communicate and access information. Better access to high-quality prosthetics, hearing aids and modified forms of transport reduce limitations, too. The main barriers are social attitudes. The artists involved in From Disability to Visibility believe that this exhibition will help to improve them.
“I hope that when people come to see it, it will change their minds on disability,” says Chan Phoun. “They will see that a disabled person can do anything.”