Stepping into an unassuming building with no prior expectations, we were in awe after seeing his artwork, a large painting illustrating Sydney’s landscape. With a wistful smile, Sivanh Sibounheaung, a 24-year-old man hailing from Vientiane, begins to recount his past.
All it took was one life-changing incident to turn Sivanh’s life upside down. What was supposed to be a filial act to help his father earn some money for their family, left him physically impaired from electrocution, losing two limbs in the process. At the young age of 16, Sivanh was in utter despair, knowing that his life would change forever. “I used to be able to do things that I considered was normal, but that all changed when I couldn’t do those things anymore,” Sivanh recalls feeling extremely discouraged by the sudden lack of mobility. As this accident wiped away his ability to write, play sports, and paint, Sivanh was in turmoil in accepting his impairment.
Sivanh reminisces the days when he lives his youth life full of joy and excitement with his friends eight years ago. Unlike his peers that continued their formal education at local universities, Sivanh had no choice but to forgo his bachelor’s degree due to the relentless examination failures. Deviating from his original dream to become an engineer due to his disability, he eventually found solace in painting and drawing.
The accident affected his entire family, financially straining his parents with mountains of hospital bills. School for the disabled and students with special needs comes with a financial burden; however, due to his family's condition, the thought of enrolling in school has vanished. Fortunately, with financial support from his cousin and encouragement from his family, Sivanh picked up his paintbrush; with renewed determination to reach his dreams as an artist.
It was a tumultuous time for Sivanh; the fear of employment and discrimination plagued his mind. Without a degree or an average functioning body, he feared that he would not earn a living and support his family. Rather than dwelling in the past, Sivanh was determined to change his life's fate and motivated to make a living. After recuperating in the hospital for a couple of years, Sivanh began learning how to paint and draw.
Due to his immobility, Sivanh had to find alternative means to continue his learning. Unable to further his formal education like his peers, he turned to the internet to scour for some learning materials from watching painting tutorials on various social media platforms in English and Thai. For him, tablet and a computer are his classroom, while internet contents are his teachers and classmates.
Picking up the arm band and seamlessly sliding it on his arm with a paintbrush attached to it, Sivanh continues his painting with his confident brushstrokes. He claims that “art is a part of my life now. It is essential to me; it is my passion. It is what keeps me going in life.”, encouraging fellow youths to pursue their passion.
“Are people staring at me or am I just overthinking?”. Such thoughts haunted Sivanh so much that he was unable to go out in society freely. He feared the discrimination he would inevitably face if he tried to assimilate himself with people that are deemed normal by societal norms. His fear transcended deeply, he was unable to confront other people, thus leading him to hone his skills through social media platforms.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining. One fond memory that stuck to him amidst the hardships that he faced; was the first time he was paid for his artwork. “I remember clearly, the first time I was paid for my artwork. It was a policewoman that paid me 100,000 LAK (11USD) for my artwork.” This serves as a reminder to people like Sivanh, that digitalization can be leveraged as a learning tool and a platform to showcase talented individuals' work.
“I think that you can turn your passion into a career. You need to love what you do.” Even without formal education, Sivanh was able to turn his hobby into a professional career. “Society should be more understanding and supportive towards people with disabilities. I think that will help people like me overcome hardships.” Sivanh claims that public support was the driving force for him to keep pursuing his passion. “Whenever I post my work on Facebook, there would be lots of supportive comments.”
Like Sivanh, there are several disadvantaged youths in Lao PDR that are currently unemployed. The integration of the disabled community will help address sustainable development challenges in creating an inclusive society. Digitalization has proven to provide benefits to Lao people, especially during the time of the pandemic.
From creating new job opportunities to changing the way people work. From the case of Sivanh, digitalization is not only a platform to learn, but it is a conduit to make his voice heard. Currently, UNDP in Lao PDR is working with Lao Youth Union to apply innovative approaches to explore development and employment opportunities for Lao youths. We will look into more cases like Sivanh, where passion meets opportunity through innovation and digitalization.
For Lao version: ສໍາລັບບົດຄວາມພາສາລາວ
Ms. Onkham Banyadith, Communication Intern and Mr. Khavi Homsombath, Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.