Samnieng Thammavong and I first met when we began working together on a new initiative to provide vocational training to persons with disabilities and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors in Saravan province, southern Laos. A highly professional, competent and clearly, well-educated man. Over the subsequent months, he showed tremendous dedication and empathy through his interactions with the villagers who attended our trainings. I was immediately impressed by him.
Samnieng was diagnosed with polio as a young child and walks using a crutch as a supporting device. As Director of the Lao Disabled People’s Association (LDPA) and well-respected by all colleagues, it seems that barriers oftentimes created by society have not prevented his full participation nor has it prevented him from realising his ambitions and goals. We quickly became friends as we continued working together on support efforts for UXO survivors and victims.
I was surprised to learn of the struggles he had endured. Samnieng was born in a remote village of Xiengkhouang province, northern Laos in the 1970s. Today, Xiengkhouang faces many challenges, being one of the most heavily UXO contaminated provinces in the country and hard to access with its difficult mountain terrain and poor infrastructure. It was an even greater challenge for him in those days.
Samnieng, a child of 12, contracted polio when he was 1 and a half years old. With no available transport, his parents carried him to the nearest hospital, a trip which took them 2 days on foot. Although he survived the virus, it left him paralysed in one leg. The widespread distribution of polio vaccinations has since led to its almost-global eradication, but this vaccine was only introduced to rural Lao villages, like Samnieng’s, in the 1990s.
Laos’ culture is rich and beautiful,premised on the pillars of community and family support. It is also a strong Buddhist country with many holding strong beliefs in spirits, karma and luck. With a sibling who suffers from schizophrenia, Samnieng’s paralysis led many to believe that his family was unlucky, resulting in them being shunned from family events and social gatherings.
Believing he was at fault, Samnieng became consumed by guilt. Watching his siblings help his parents gather food every day in the paddy fields while he was unable, morphed him into depression. This further escalated to suicidal thoughts and he attempted to take his own life, not believing that he had any future to look forward to.
To get him the assistive devices that he needed, his mother convinced his father to sell their buffalo and move closer to Vientiane capital. These were the family’s only assets at the time, but it was a move which would save Samnieng’s life.
Not wanting to be a burden on his family or community, Samnieng became motivated to attend college in Vientiane, hoping to better his chances of providing for his family
During Samnieng’s adolescent years in Laos, discrimination was prevalent and relentless. It pushed him off campus as he could not endure the college dormitories where other students would tease him about his paralysed leg in the communal shower rooms. He stayed instead, at the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation, where he was surrounded by understanding peers and walked 3 hours every day to and from college.
Let me tell you, that walk is unbearable for most in the dry Lao heat. But with a physical disability in the monsoon rains, it is unimaginable and added an extra hour each day to his journey. Nevertheless, he endured. He committed himself to his studies, taking both an evening and daytime course and six years later, obtained two degrees.
Upon completing his studies, Japan offered a scholarship opportunity to Lao college graduates with disabilities. Samnieng was one of three eligible candidates that year. He received the scholarship, studied in Japan and subsequently obtained a job working for a Japanese Aid and Relief Association in Laos.
His career subsequently flourished and has since worked with communities, schools, UXO survivors and persons with disabilities. He recently took me to his village where he proudly showed me the new house he had built to support his parents. Being one the few in his family who earns a salary, he also provides for other family members who are in need. He quickly dispelled any doubt they ever had in his potential.
Samnieng is now serving as the Director of the Lao Disabled People’s Association (LDPA), one of the most widely representative organisations for persons with disabilities in Laos. He is dedicated to bettering the lives of those he works with, providing them with opportunities for inclusive growth and ensuring that no-one is left behind. He does this by advocating for the social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities into national laws and policies, including the Law on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a landmark body of legislation introduced by the Laos Government in 2019. LDPA has since worked closely with the Laos Government to participate in the national CRPD Review, scheduled to take place in September 2021.
2020 has brought with it the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic, having a disproportionate impact on persons with disabilities in Laos. Access to health care for these individuals has been increasingly challenging, given the travel restrictions, border closures and national lockdown. Family members are struggling to provide the necessary support to relatives with disabilities, especially for those with more serious health conditions that require regular medical care and treatment.
LDPA has also reported a rise in the numbers of persons with disabilities struggling with mental health issues this year, resulting from the social distancing rules that have left many feeling isolated from their community and friends. LDPA has responded with increased support to these vulnerable families and has also established peer to peer support groups to reduce the impacts of isolation. It seems that this pandemic has only increased Samnieng’s resolve to raise awareness about the hardships and discrimination faced by persons with disabilities in Laos by acknowledging their stories and giving them a voice.
All his early life, Samnieng considered himself unlucky. Now, he joyfully says that he can clearly see that his disability brought him good fortune. During his stay at the rehabilitation centre he met his now-wife, Nou, a warm intelligent lady who is also a polio survivor. He is a proud father of two wonderful girls and an inspiration to many. I am proud to call him my friend
*The Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives provides support for persons with disabilities, including UXO survivors, in Saravane province through UNDP. The project was implemented by our government partner, the National Regulatory Authority for the UXO/Mine Sector in Lao PDR (NRA) in conjunction with LDPA. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) globally, has been leading the process of disability inclusion. The programme in Laos has a track record of working with the persons with disabilities through their organizations.
 World Health Organisation Regional Office for the Western Pacific, “Fifty years: working for health in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 1962-2012”, page 26. It is noted therein that vaccinations were expanded to cover the entire country in 1991. Prior to that, immunization services were limited to provincial and some district towns with no outreach to villages.
Written by: Amanda Shiel, Programme and Partnership Support Officer, Unexploded Ordnance Unit, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.