One of my neighbors moved here from Sweden to work. That he need to use a wheelchair in Cambodia, where there is little accommodation to individuals who cannot walk as well as able-bodied individuals, does not seem to faze him.
When I asked him about life in Phnom Penh for folks like him, he told me that he managed pretty well. Of course, managing means that he takes a tuk-tuk or taxi everywhere, the streets being perilous even for pedestrians. Too, I imagine that he forgoes destinations with insurmountable obstacles.
(Example: I walked this morning along the side of a busy road in the direction of oncoming traffic just a couple of hours before drafting this post. I didn’t hear the teen-age girl and her friend come up behind me on a motorbike, which bumped and brushed my bare shin. Driving the wrong way is a national pastime.
(“Sorry,” the driver giggled as she drove away, and I luckily suffered no harm. But the incident ruined my mood for the rest of my long walk.)
It happens that I came across a piece someone wrote about his experience of getting around Phnom Penh in a fancy wheelchair. There were places he could not visit at all or only with assistance — among them, the National Museum and the notoriously unsettling Toul Sleng museum, which graphically reveals the horrors of Cambodia’s genocide — as well as others he managed by himself. Buses, which ply just three routes, were out of the question.
For foreigners like my neighbor, needing a wheelchair is hard enough. For Cambodians, a life that includes a range of disabilities must be unbearably difficult.
As I make my around the city, I see numerous restaurants, cultural centers, entertainment venues and stores that apparently make it impossible for the physically challenged to enter. Whether they have some hidden elevators, I don’t know.
With respect to persons with other disabilities such as blindness and deafness, I doubt that they find Phnom Penh to be welcoming at all: Surviving the city’s traffic is dangerous enough with good vision, hearing and reflexes.