PEOPLE: How Weh introduced speech therapy to a country without speech therapists

Weh Yeoh started out on a mission to make his own organisation redundant. While in Cambodia, he found out that, despite one in 25 people needing speech therapy, there was not one single Cambodian speech therapist in the country.

From there and then, he was committed to finding a solution to this problem that was so effective, it was no longer required.

In this interview, Weh shares his story, inspirations, learnings so far, and advice to other social entrepreneurs wanting to make a difference.

  • What inspired you to start OIC Cambodia? What was that journey like, and how difficult was it to hand over the reins to a new management team?

OIC was started after I met a child named Ouk Ling. He’s an outgoing, intelligent child, in a poor village in rural Cambodia. Due to cerebral palsy, damage that occurs in a young brain around the time of birth, he had problems speaking to the point where his language wasn’t clear at all.

When I met Ling, he was 10 years old and he had never been to school. He couldn’t read or write, or even bathe himself. He was completely dependent on his family.

Simply put, without help, Ling’s only way of earning an income would be a life of begging.

Around the same time, I also met Phearom, Ling’s community worker, who visits him at his home every few weeks.

As part of our pilot program, we trained Phearom on speech therapy. This training taught her how to treat Ling’s communication problem.

For the first time, Ling could speak with his family. But Phearom didn’t stop there. She brought Ling’s teachers together to discuss how to get Ling into the classroom.

After months of hard work, Ling is now going to school, but not only that, he is coming number two in his class. He dreams of one day becoming an architect.

Ling now has a future, because of speech therapy.

Meeting Ling two years ago taught me a valuable lesson. There are children all over Cambodia whose potential is untapped. Often, all it takes is a little bit of help and a child’s future can be improved dramatically.

The argument to create this profession is irrefutable. Speech therapy helps people to communicate, meaning that without this profession, over half a million people had difficulties going to school, getting jobs, or interacting with their families and friends. An equal number had issues with swallowing, and without speech therapy, food and liquid could enter their lungs, they could get pneumonia, and possibly die. Due to a lack of speech therapy, the country was losing millions of dollars of lost productivity due to the inability of some to participate in the workforce.

Starting OIC was an extraordinarily difficult journey because the lack of speech therapy affected many people, yet the understanding of what speech therapy is remains low – not only amongst the Cambodian community and government, but also amongst donors and non-profits.

But, after only 4 years of starting the organisation, I handed off leadership to Chenda Net, a Cambodian woman who is now running the charity in Cambodia. I’m now proud to say that OIC Cambodia is entirely Cambodian staffed, with the exception of the therapists who are yet to graduate from university.

It has been a difficult journey, but I truly believe that local people should be solving their own problems in their own countries.

  • What inspired you to start Umbo?

Umbo began with the realisation that, as I returned to Australia after 8 years of living in Asia, there were communities also lacking access to services. It was that these communities were in rural and remote Australia.

Children were waiting up to 18 months for basic services like speech and occupational therapy, which hindered their ability to participate in school and community.

It became clear that if we matched them with clinicians online, we could cut these wait times down to as little as a week.

  • What have been the biggest challenges and learnings so far with Umbo?

It has been a huge learning curve working in Australia again, where there perhaps is more inertia than in many parts of Asia. Lots of relationships have already been established and it can be difficult to break in to established circles.

This has meant that Umbo’s biggest challenge has been finding the right kinds of partnerships, to be able to access communities who need support.

I think that one of the key things I’ve learnt through Umbo is that often you just need to do your time in Australia, and show that you’ve done this, before people will start to listen to and respect you.

  • What is your advice to other social entrepreneurs looking to make a difference by starting a new organisation from the ground up?

The first thing would be to really consider whether starting an organisation is the way to go. This is now the 5th entity that I have been involved in starting, and it doesn’t necessarily get easier as you go. Clearly, there are many organisations already working on a number of issues, and it’s only after working out that none of them are interested in working on your issue, in the way that you want it to be addressed, that starting an organisation should be considered. I heard anecdotally that in Australia there is one non-profit organisation for every 40 people. You would expect there to be a huge amount of duplication if so.

There’s also the consideration around whether you are a starter or a joiner. I work with two wonderful co-founders at Umbo, Ed Johnson and Francesca Pinzone, who came on board and have accelerated Umbo’s progression in ways that I couldn’t. This is what happens when you get people who are working to their strengths, and an environment that fosters it.

Finally, if there really is no other option but to start something, the best advice is to work on yourself over working on the problem.

Tolstoy said “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

As starting a new organisation is amongst the most testing things that you can do, it’s a reflection of your character that determines whether it succeeds or fails. Or even if it succeeds, whether you come out of the journey as a fundamentally better person.

  • How important are partnerships to Umbo’s success? How do you ensure you’re working with the right partners?

Incredibly important. Our partnerships with organisations who refer or partner with us to deliver are the key reason why we have survived. The same goes for people who we have brought in as advisors and pro bono providers.

Our success is multiplied by the skillset and sheer number of our partners.

Working with the right partners is much like any relationship – it starts by defining your own values as an organisation and then working out the overlap with other partners. Very quickly, it can become clear who is or isn’t the right partner.

Once the right partner is identified, it’s a case of working out win-win solutions for both.

  • Anything else you’d like to add?

In line with the name of this new initiative, one of the things that has helped me the most in my own journey has been to escape the usual echo chamber that people find themselves in. This means talking to people in different sectors, trying to understand how things work for them; Reading really widely; Encouraging staff and volunteers to pursue professional development even if there is no direct link to their current job.

This year I’m studying piano, stand-up comedy and philosophy. This has nothing to do with my role, but everything to do with being able to think broadly.

While I think this has definitely helped me, it has also meant that the initiatives I’ve worked in are not just working within the social sector, but actively moving the social sector forward.

About the expert

Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney and lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for over five years.  He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has also completed a Masters in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered with people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing.

He founded OIC Cambodia after meeting Ling, a boy who slurs his speech.  With basic speech therapy, Ling is now going to school for the first time and not just participating, but excelling. He’s coming second in his class.

Weh would love to see this success for every child in Cambodia, and yet, there is not one local speech therapist in Cambodia. Weh believes that every person deserves a chance and loves fighting for the underdog.

He is now co-founding Umbo, a social enterprise bridging the gap for rural children to access allied health services.