Stigma – lack of government support leaves a dearth of opportunities for disabled people in Thailand.
Thailand: Deftly feeling their way along the bumps of the braille score, the young players of Thailand’s first blind orchestra memorize scales, defying both their impairment and ingrained negative attitudes towards disability.
It is rehearsal time just hours ahead of a concert at an open-air auditorium in a national park, and around 30 fledgling classical musicians enthusiastically strum, pluck and bow instruments they have held but never seen.
“At first it was really hard for me… I wanted to stop,” said Joe a 14-year-old budding cellist who picked up the stringed instrument nine-months ago.” But when I realized that others could do it, I gave it another try,” he told AFP, smiling broadly.Official figures show that Thailand is home to 1.8 million disabled people, of whom around 180,000 are blind, in a population of more than 64 million. Yet campaigners say that state provision for disabled people is poor, compounding a widely held Buddhist belief in karma that, in the minds of many, links physical impairments with the supposed ‘misdeeds’ of a past life.
The Thai Blind Orchestra, made up of players aged between eight and 15 years old, offers a rare positive platform for disabled Thais. The orchestra, who use donated instruments, were brought together by a professional classical musician whose day job is looking after elephants in the Khao Yai National Park in northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima province.
‘The kids are happy’
The seeds of the idea were planted when the blind students met their soon-to-be maestro, Alongkot Chukaew, at his conservation classes in the park. Teaching with the help of audible aids, including his guitar, the 43-year-old Alongkot noticed music caught the attention of the children. He asked his music teachers to play different instruments and encouraged the youngsters to follow the sound they liked best.
As their affinity with their chosen instrument mushroomed, Alongkot introduced a braille system for the students to learn to read classical music. Shown one-on-one how to position their fingers on their instruments, the children then memorize both the notes and the correct placement to make the right sounds. “It was hard because they cannot see the demonstration of where to put their fingers or hold the bows,” said Alongkot. “But it was fun.” “Some people might not like their performance, but the kids are happy and have fun with it,” he said, adding they are not looking to compete. Attitudes towards disability across Southeast Asia are often shaped by a sense of karmic destiny.
The same philosophy that encourages people to do good deeds so they may be rewarded on reincarnation also leads people to believe that the disabled suffer their impediments because of their actions in a past life. It is something that holds back progressive policies and leaves many of the region’s disabled in poverty or hidden at home by ashamed families. “Disabled people are the poorest of the poor,” explains Suporntum Mongkolsawadi, a Thai double-amputee from childhood who now campaigns for improved rights. “The belief in karma makes disabled people think they should just surrender and accept their fate,” added the 48-year-old, who heads the Redemptorist Foundation for People with Disabilities.