10 December 2013

Moving Moments

This article was published in Bangkok Post newspaper on 19 November 2013.


Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya
Photos and video by Metee Thuentap

Charnchai Khemkaew was born with physical and intellectual disabilities. When he was a child, his friends mocked him for his slurred speech, slow responses and abnormal walk, while neighbours told his mother she would have to take care of him for the rest of her life.
His mother, Boonhome, could only cry upon hearing these remarks.

“I thought he would not have a future,” Boonhome, 41, said of her 21-year-old son. “I am very poor and could not give him good education. Neighbours even said there was no need for him to go to school, since it would be useless.”

Charnchai spent his first few years in a standard school in Chiang Mai, but was later transferred to Kawila Anukul School for children with intellectual or multiple disabilities.

Boonhome said she did not have much hope, but she wanted her son to be able to read and write, and to complete his primary education.

Charnchai Khemkaew (right) and his mother Boonhome.
The situation Charnchai and his mother have faced is not unusual for a family with a disabled child. Many children with intellectual disabilities suffer exclusion from their communities, are looked down on, and receive few of the opportunities that other children take for granted.

In Thailand, there are about 1 million people with intellectual disabilities. Of these, about 600,000 are children, according to Special Olympics Thailand, a non-profit organisation that provides year-round sports training and organises athletics competitions for more than 15,000 people with intellectual disabilities.

“Children with intellectual disabilities are the most vulnerable group in the society and have the fewest opportunities in life,” said Rachaniwan Bulakul, the national director of Special Olympics Thailand. “This is because they often have difficulty understanding what is happening around them and communicating with others about their needs, their feelings and their rights.”

A girl performs at the motor-skill activity training programme and aerobic dancing for the Northern Region.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has provided support to Special Olympics Thailand for promoting social inclusion and development for disabled children through participation in sports for several years. This year, UNICEF is sponsoring regional games and motor-skills activity training for children who are intellectually disabled or have multiple disabilities.

“Sports can help children with intellectual disabilities to develop physically,” said Ampa Jinagun, head of Special Olympics’ Northern Region office. “Although their intellectual capacity cannot advance much, these children can learn to help themselves and live happily in society if they are repeatedly trained or given opportunities.”

Charnchai is living proof of this. He was introduced to sports when he was eight years old after teachers at Kawila Anukul School noticed he had problems walking and often fell down. The staff thought playing sports would serve as therapy for his condition and make him stronger.

“Nobody is born perfect. I may not be good at many things, but I have found my talent in sports,” Charnchai said. “Sports has opened new doors for me and has changed my life.”

Charnchai Khemkaew meets Friend of UNICEF Paula Taylor.
After he started training, his talents gradually showed. He was chosen as a school representative to compete in table tennis and soccer for the Special Olympics Thailand National Games in 2008, and was later selected to join the organisation’s Athlete Leadership Programme, which gives people the chance to explore opportunities beyond physical sports, such as training to become a coach or a spokesperson.

In late September, Charnchai, who serves as an athlete committee member on Special Olympics Thailand’s board of directors, welcomed Friend of UNICEF Paula Taylor to the motor-skill activity training programme and aerobic dancing for the Northern Region. Almost 400 children with intellectual disabilities from 14 schools in the area gathered at Kawila Anukul School to participate. Different types of activities, including rolling balls into goals, throwing them against the wall, aerobic dancing and playing with hoola hoops were organised, and the children were given medals for their performances.

The participants also gave a warm welcome to Paula, who listened to their stories, gave them moral support and awarded them with their medals.

“It is good to be here,” the actress said. “I am happy to see the pride on their faces when they achieve something.” 

Paula also said she believes children with disabilities can integrate into society if they are given the chance.

Friend of UNICEF Paula Taylor with disabled children in Chiang Mai.
Charnchai is among those who were given that chance. After completing his secondary education, he got a job at Hana Microelectronics in Lamphun province. He started out doing administrative work and later moved to the production line after he proved himself both responsible and having the potential to work well as others.

The company has a policy to hire disabled people that is based on the belief that every human being has potential that can be developed.

“I used to feel resentful with my disabilities and never thought I could find a job,” he said. “But now I am thankful that people gave me an opportunity. Getting the job at Hana proves I am able to work and live an ordinary life.”

When asked about his future, Charnchai said he plans to save money and open his own minimart. Boonhome said she hopes his dream will come true one day.

“Although he has disabilities, he also has abilities,” she said. “He tries hard in everything he does and never gives up, and these are the characteristics behind his success.”

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