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Rising from the Ashes – the Story of Ms. Saowalak Thongkuay

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Written by agendaasia.org

Rising from the Ashes – the Story of Ms. Saowalak ThongkuayIf Saowalak Thongkuay, 46, of Thailand did not get into a car accident, life might have been very different for her. Before December 1993, she held an office job as an accountant in a bank and was happily engaged.

“When the accident took place, my fiancé and I were on our way to my hometown to prepare our wedding, which was only one week away.” Thongkuay had a serious spinal cord injury that left her in a wheelchair. Her fiancé, who was not injured in the accident, called off the engagement began a romantic relationship with her best friend.

As she was struggling to move on, Thongkuay found that living with a disability was a totally different world.

“After I was injured, I was automatically fired from the job. Then, after spending three years living apart from my family [for] medical rehabilitation, I got a job at a hotel in my hometown. Surprisingly, almost all the staff of the hotel looked down on me; they spread gossip to their boss that I was not productive and did not perform as the head accountant. I was devastated with this unfriendly atmosphere…I had to resign due to everyday barriers.”

After quitting her job, she decided to jump into the family business, hoping she would finally find her niche.

“I stayed at home and assisted my sister-in-law in the bakery business.” Thongkuay said everything went fine with the bakery until customers began encouraging others to buy her bread because it was made by a person with disability. While supplies quickly sold out, she felt it was not for the right reason. “It was not because our bread was delicious,” she said. “This incident made me doubtful about my existence as a human being. How come my disability has anything to do with this? What is going on? I decided to leave the business.”

It was 2000 and Thongkuay was then directed to the disability movement.

“I decided to study English at the Redemptorist Vocational School for Persons with Disability. In this school, I learned from a disability perspective for the first time because I had to share a dormitory with other students with different levels of physical disability,” she said. “I started getting to know leaders with disabilities, including my boss, former Disabled People’s International Asia Pacific (DPI/AP) Regional Development Officer Topong Kulkhanchit.”

According to Thongkuay, the negative environments she previously faced impacted her ability to succeed. Discovering the disability movement enabled her to find the needed positivity to build a new career and a new life.

Today she is an Educationist of Disability and holds the position of regional development officer at DPI/AP. Her responsibilities include acting as the regional focal point of DPI national assemblies and the disability movement in the region; promoting and protecting human rights and disabilities; and creating a regional program to mobilize the disability movement in the region and sub-region.

Thongkuay now has a master’s degree in education in human resources development and a bachelor’s of business administration in public relations from Rhamkhaeng University. Her education allowed her to brush up on the state of people with disabilities in her own country. “There are approximately 1.9 million persons with disabilities, consisting of around 2.9 percent of the entire population and most of them live in rural areas,” she said. “Of this number, 4.1 percent are female and 58.6 percent are male. There are 116,468 children with disabilities, of which 58,747 are female and 57,751 are male.”

The disability movement in Thailand began to show promising results after Thailand ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in July 2008. Since then, activists have mobilized resources to ensure effective implementation. Key pieces of legislation, namely the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act and the Persons with Disabilities Education Act have been enacted to serve as comprehensive rights-based laws for persons with disabilities.

Despite the improving environment for persons with disabilities, Thongkuay still believes there are issues that have yet to be addressed.

“While persons with disabilities have a better life quality than before, they still do not have the full benefit of policies because disability is still viewed as a social issue rather than a human right issue,” she said.

For example, in employment, regulation stipulates that employers can choose not to hire persons with disabilities – reducing the prospects for persons with disabilities to live independently.

“This also reinforces stereotypes and negative perceptions of persons with disabilities not being capable or able workers, and impacts the poverty reduction strategies towards the millennium development goals,” she added.

To tackle these problems, Thongkuay works at the regional level. “We keep on promoting regional cooperation and [efforts to] mainstream the disability perspective in existing human rights mechanisms in the ASEAN by working with CSOs (local organizations) or multi-sector organizations to give them knowledge, information and facts on the disability dimension and its interrelationship to other issues.”

“Eighteen years have passed since Thongkuay’s car accident. One year after her appointment as the regional director, she was elected as the Outstanding Woman to Promote Women Human Rights by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. She also lead her organization in becoming the founding entity of the ASEAN Disability Forum (ADF), which provided training from a disability perspective for a hotel group in Southeast Asia as part of job creation efforts and welcoming customers with disabilities.

Saowalak Thongkuay was interviewed by Riri Rafiani

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