Saowalak Thongkuay, an advocate for persons with disabilities, is in New York this week for the fifth session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Saowalak is Regional Development Officer for Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) Asia-Pacific Region, where she is collaborating with the Women’s Refugee Commission to raise awareness of the concerns of refugees and other displaced persons with disabilities. She sat down to speak with us about her experience and the disability movement.
WRC: How did you get involved with DPI?
Saowalak Thongkuay: When I became a person with a disability in 1993, I spent almost 10 years recovering—with physical and psychological rehabilitation. Because of my disability, I could not find a job. I did vocational training and learned English, but even with that, it’s very difficult for persons with disabilities to get work—even if you have the qualifications. To me, English was very meaningful; with English I could get work with an international development agency.
After learning English skills, I got my first job at Asia Pacific Center on Disability, as secretary for a Japanese expert. I learned a lot about the disability movement. I met a lot of leaders with disabilities in the region. In 2007, I moved to DPI, working as assistant to the regional development officer. He passed away that same year, after [I had been there] seven months. When he passed, I had to carry on and do so much. I took his place in this position. I was so young and learned by practice.
My direct experience can harmonize with the work, and I have found that persons with disabilities need to be empowered individually. If they come together they will be a strong voice to advocate for themselves. I found DPI the right platform for me and for persons with disabilities to claim our rights.
What is the ultimate goal of DPI?
The ultimate goal is full participation and equalization of opportunities in society. Our motto is “Nothing about us without us.” When we say “us,” we mean the disabled community. We should be at the center of any discussions about our own needs and issues. We should play a key role, because we understand better than anyone else, of course, our needs.
You see persons with disabilities are ready to be problem-solvers who would like to contribute to the community. We believe that we can be change agents, if we get appropriate education and training. And if the disenabling environment, including social attitudes, is removed.
What is the biggest impediment right now to the movement, and what would you most like to see changed?
I would love to see an improvement in policy—to narrow the gap between policy and implementation. And there is still a lot of discrimination. Persons with disabilities have inherent dignity. They have the capability to solve their own issues, if they are given the opportunity.
Can you speak about your work on disaster risk reduction and the specific concerns of persons with disabilities in humanitarian emergencies?
Disaster risk reduction and preparing for emergencies is a new area of work for us, but after the floods in Thailand last year we know how important it is. Our office itself was flooded; so we know first-hand. We had to relocate temporarily to Pattaya [about 100 miles from Bangkok], and it was very scary. I learned then the complications of having to move when you are disabled.
During this time, some humanitarian agencies were handing out kits, but they only had food items and not other things that are essential for people with disabilities—like catheters or pads. So some people got infections because they didn’t have these things. But we learned a lot about what not to do and what to do. Now we have a project looking specifically at women with disabilities in these specific crisis situations.
What keeps you motivated in your work?
Having a disability motivates me. I have to overcome discrimination every day. It keeps me thinking and thinking. When I go anywhere I think about the car park and how to get to the place, I think about the carpeting or flooring and getting my wheel chair through—I think about all of these things and making sure other people with disabilities can get around too. We have to have a common understanding of what “disability” even means to make progress. We all have different levels of needs and hold multiple identities. I am proud of being woman with a disability. Disability provides me the opportunity to discover the world so that I can harmonize my direct experience and knowledge to contribute to community.
Learn more about the Women’s Refugee Commission’s disability program.