Crafting a Better Life

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YANGON – Making a living has never been easy for Daw San San Oo, who at 44 has lived most of her life with a prosthetic leg and one functioning eye. When she was about 5 years old, an untreated ulcer in her toe soon became a brutal infection, coursing through the right side of her body. After three amputations, little was left of her leg and her vision was permanently impaired.

Despite living very close to a primary school, Daw San San Oo was not allowed to enroll. She never went to school and she never learned how to read or write. Eventually, she taught herself to count as being able to read numbers and count cash was necessary for just about any kind of job. She spent years eking out a living as a vegetable vendor, but the work was hard and the income unstable.

“I was tired all the time,” she recalled, sitting on the floor of a small wooden house in Dala Township, just across the river from the heart of Yangon.

About one year ago Daw San San Oo joined the team of Pann Nann Ein, an organization that employs people living with a disability while providing a vocational skill set. Since it was founded in 2012, Pann Nann Ein has grown into a successful business producing quality hand-crafted greeting cards, with 18 full-time employees earning a steady and livable wage.

All of Pann Nann Ein’s craftspeople live with some type of disability. Some are hearing impaired, some have Down syndrome and several—like Daw San San Oo—have lost limbs. They all live within an hour’s commute from Dala, where they convene once a week to restock materials and spend a day working and studying together. While five of the staff are hearing impaired, all are learning Myanmar sign language so they can communicate with each other.

The degree and nature of disability among Pann Nann Ein’s staff varies wildly, but some experiences were shared by all, namely, discrimination in social life, in schools and in the workplace. For many of Myanmar’s disabled, lack of access to schooling causes enormous difficulty in adult life, further disadvantaging already marginalized people. While some educational reformers are pushing for inclusive education, disabled children are often not allowed to attend government schools and are offered few alternatives.

Myanmar only has about 15 special education schools for the deaf, blind, physically and intellectually disabled. Government figures indicate that only about 0.5 percent of the country’s school-aged children living with a disability are enrolled in government-run schools. While there are a few other specialized institutions operated by NGOs, basic education is largely limited to those who live in one of the country’s two largest cities: Yangon and Mandalay.

“Accessibility is the main problem,” explained Daw Hnin Phyu Kaung, one of the founders of Pann Nann Ein and a former employee of The Leprosy Mission International. She said that attitudes and misconceptions about disability—even among education professionals—make it difficult for children with disabilities to attend local schools, while many have no access to special education programs.

“If they change their attitudes, there’s no need for special schools. We’re all people, we’re part of the same community, we can attend the same schools,” she said.

Daw Hnin Phyu Kaung said she helped establish Pann Nann Ein after working for seven years with people affected by leprosy, a curable infectious disease that can lead to severe disfigurement. It has been eradicated in many parts of the world, but South and Southeast Asia still have some of the highest prevalence rates globally.

After years of experience with leprosy patients, Daw Hnin Phyu Kaung surmised that one of the biggest problems for people living with a disability is a significant disadvantage in gaining employment, stemming from both poor education and social stigma.

“I found that sustainable livelihood is important for them,” she said. “If we give them sustainable work, it supports their skills. It makes them more sociable, more confident.”

She seems to be right, according to several of the organization’s staff. U Nay Linn Aung and his wife, Daw Khin Moe Win, joined the team together in late 2013. She was born without full use of her left arm and leg; he lost a leg in a machine-related accident while farming only a few years ago. For some time after the accident, U Nay Linn Aung was depressed; he said that people suddenly treated him differently. “Even my friends looked down on me,” he said.

With limited options, U Nay Linn Aung struggled to get by making baskets and fishing nets, but he and Daw Khin Moe Win are now able to earn a steady income. They share a small home in Dala and hope to have children. Glancing at his wife as she nonchalantly trimmed away at textile swatches, he smiled and said, “I like working here.”

Pann Nann Ein products can be found at Pomelo, 89 Thein Pyu Road, Yangon.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.