Phnom Penh’s streets are far from friendly, making it difficult for those with disabilities to get about. Writer Thomas Brent meets one man whose mission it to make the city accessible to all with Mobiltuk. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Reaksmey Chan Mary is 18-years-old and has been virtually bed-bound her entire life. She was born healthy but aged four months suffered an illness that in turn led to cerebral palsy.
Now her mobility is extremely limited and she can only communicate using basic words and sounds.
For her family, who live with her on Koh Dach, her disability has been a huge challenge, both financially and socially. However, recently she has received a life-changing new hope in the form of Mobiltuk.
Mobilituk is a concept dreamed up by Ian Jones, who runs the company Agile. It is a modified version of the standard tuk tuk, and the simple design fits a ramp onto the back to provide wheelchair access. The aim is to provide transport and accessibility for people with disabilities across Cambodia.
Keogh Johnston, Mobiltuk partner, believes the project could go far. He says, “We hope this idea will really take off in Cambodia. I think the design has the potential to rejuvenate the tuk tuk business, which is facing growing competition.”
It is believed as many as 1.5 million people in Cambodia suffer from some form of disability. However, for most there is not a reliable transport system. Nuon Seyhakanha is a wheelchair user who has never had the opportunity to travel around Phnom Penh. Recently she used Mobilituk to explore the capital for the first time, and loved the experience.
“I have lived in the city for two years but I could never visit it,” she says. “With Mobilituk I was able to travel around and I really enjoyed it. It was very easy to use.”
Working at Lilyfood Industry she makes the short commute from her home to her job in an old wheelchair donated by an NGO. Although she toils daily with her disability, she tries not to let it affect her, and proudly speaks of being self-sufficient and remaining focused on being positive. Despite this, she receives no financial support and in her life she faces many challenges. For her, the benefits of having a tuk tuk that can accommodate her wheelchair and doesn’t charge extra is a huge boost.
“It is good for all disabled people in Cambodia,” she says. “Then we can get out and visit sights like the Royal Palace or museums or the markets.”
This project is only in the beginning phase, but there are many plans in the pipeline. There have already been experiments with some more advanced customised tuk tuks. Along with the ramp on the back, they also have a solar panel for power, speakers, strobe lights, awnings and storage space.
For Johnston, this project has been something of a turning point in his life, as he is now focused on helping the country support those with disabilities.
“The most important thing is the awareness for disability,” he remarks. “The more visible this is the better. I hope it can build more compassion in the country towards disabled people.”
He himself has taken a personal interest in Mary and her family, and has bought a wheelchair for her along with arranging medical assessments. In little more than a month, she has gone from spending all day in bed to sitting up in her wheelchair and getting out and about within her neighbourhood. Her family are markedly more optimistic about the situation as well, and there is a new zeal to the atmosphere in the house.
Now there are seven Mobilituks on the Cambodia’s road. The first was supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After its completion, Johnston was approached by them to help design customised vans kitted out with equipment for fixing prosthetic limbs. This project is ongoing and has helped hundreds of people across the country, mainly those affected by mine explosions.
Jones admits there is a long way to go for the country in terms of disability support. However, he has seen the direct impact that something as simple as offering accessible transport can have for those affected people.
For him and Johnston the hope is that the Mobilituk brand can be the catalyst for improving the lives of thousands of people living in Cambodia.
Certainly for people like Mary, who was recently able to attend her first wedding, it is already working its magic.