As a healthy seven-year-old boy, Meas Sabun dreamt of becoming a teacher in his home village in Ang Tasom commune about 15km west of the provincial capital, Donkeo.
Unfortunately, his dreams for the future were disrupted by an accident when he was in the second grade that resulted in his foot being amputated.
Sabun recalled the accident that happened to him at seven years old: “I was sitting under the palm trees guarding rice seedlings. Suddenly the bamboo ladder fell and landed on my left foot.
“Even though it hurt badly, I didn’t panic or get upset. My parents then brought me to the hospital,” says Sabun.
When he woke up from surgery he was told that they hadn’t been able to save his foot due to the severity of his injuries. They were forced to amputate it to save his life.
When Sabun finished high school in 1998 he could get around slowly with the help of a crutch and he began looking for employment.
“I only studied through grade 12 and I couldn’t speak English very well. Add a disability on top of that and it meant I couldn’t find a job anywhere doing anything,” he says.
Though people with disabilities were technically allowed to pursue their studies or work as a teacher just like anyone else 20 years ago, the reality was that it was often very difficult to find employment as a disabled person.
“Applying for a job back then required physical fitness, even if the job wasn’t physical labour. It was just expected. I was turned down by many places the moment they saw my crutch or realised I had lost my foot,” Sabun says.
While people with disabilities still face prejudice and discrimination at times, Sabun says some efforts have been made by the government and non-governmental organisations (NGO) to educate the public about this issue.
“Today things are changing notably and people with some disabilities are encouraged to apply for jobs now, especially at state-run institutions and NGOs,” Sabun says.
From age seven when the accident occurred up until age 22 the only assistance Sabun had in order to get around on his own was a crutch that made his disability obvious to others and wasn’t easy to use.
Then Sabun got his first prosthetic foot at the Physical Rehabilitation Centre (PRC) in Takeo. He became a regular client there and that’s where he first heard about athletic competitions for people with disabilities.
When Sabun tried his “new foot” for the first time, he found it very difficult to get used to and it hurt when he walked with it.
“It was very hard for me to walk at first. Wearing an artificial foot wasn’t easy since it chafed against my leg and it required a lot of practice.
“Eventually I could walk very well with it unless I got sore and then it would hurt too much,” he says.
Sabun says that while prosthetics like his artificial foot are of huge benefit to people with disabilities they come with their own trade-offs.
“Daily use of my artificial foot causes minor injuries and wearing it from dawn to dusk causes a lot of inflammation. When taking a break at work or when I don’t need to be mobile I take it off and at night I always remove it,” Sabun says.
Today, Sabun works at the Centre as a prosthesis and orthotics assistant.
He produces prosthetics and orthotics for others because he feels a duty to help those in need in the same way that the Centre had helped him so many years ago.
“Without these prosthetics to help them they face very difficult lives,” Sabun says.
Sabun says that prosthetics are the best option for most people to get around because most of the buildings in Cambodia aren’t equipped with ramps or elevators for wheelchairs.
“Once they get used to their new limbs they can go out and find a job or open a business to support their families,” says Sabun.
The prosthetics and orthotics are produced free of charge by the centre for persons with disabilities. The centre even provides financial assistance to travel there to be fitted for them.
Sabun says: “Aside from providing new limbs, the centre also provides support and training in the use of the prosthetics and their maintenance. We also help to disabled persons get training in vocational skills.”
Sabun, 40, discovered that he could overcome many of the limitations that had been imposed on him or that he had imposed on himself due to his disability through athletics.
“I loved playing volleyball. When I went in to be fitted for my artificial foot someone told me about the volleyball club. I joined and started playing in 2002,” he says.
When Takeo started a volleyball club, they invited him to join the team and then he began working at the Physical Rehabilitation Centre in 2006.
“For several years I was both working and training in volleyball at the same time. It was tiring but it was worth it,” Sabun says.
The pay-off for all that work came for Sabun when he played on Cambodia’s national paralympic volleyball team and they won a bronze medal at the
Paralympic SEA Games in Myanmar in 2013.
“It was a great experience for the whole team to win the medal and it was an honour to represent my country. I hope we made all Cambodians, with or without disabilities, proud,” Sabun says.
Sabun kept playing volleyball for a few years after their big medal win but eventually he decided to set the sport aside to focus on his work at the centre.
“I left the volleyball club a couple of years back to focus on my job but I’ve stayed active as an athlete by getting involved with shot-put.
“It’s an individual sport so it’s easier to find time to train,” Sabun says.
Sabun keeps a full schedule these days between his job and his family. He says he feels blessed to have his wife and three children to come home to each night.
His wife runs a small grocery and they have a cow and chickens in their backyard.
“When I get home, I feed the animals and then spend time with my family. When I have free time we go fishing and then make prahok,” Sabun says.
Sabun says he was able to build a happy life for himself despite the challenges of having a disability in Cambodia because he never gave up and never used his disability as an excuse for failure.
He encourages persons with disabilities to believe in themselves and focus on what they can do instead of worrying about what they can’t do.
“My message to persons with disabilities is ‘don’t rely on your disability to make a living by begging in the street’. You can have a better life than that by relying on your abilities instead of your disability.
“Help is available. Stay strong and don’t give up,” Sabun says.