Meet Erin Moriarty Harrelson. A student of anthropology and a Fulbright–National Geographic fellow, she documents the experiences of deaf Cambodians. One in 20 Cambodians are either deaf or hard of hearing. Many have never learned sign language or gone to school.

(Courtesy of Fulbright Program)

That’s why many Cambodians are surprised to meet Harrelson, who is also deaf.

“I’ve never met a deaf researcher!” is a common reaction from Cambodians. Harrelson can read lips but, she writes, often people not directly in front of her don’t understand when she fails to respond. They seem to have “the sentiment of ‘I just said something but she’s not looking at me or responding appropriately.’”

But Harrelson is showing people that a disability hasn’t limited her ability to do great things.

Her research comes at a time when more than 1 billion people across the globe live with a disability — about 15 percent of the world’s population. Many of them don’t receive the same opportunities afforded to people without disabilities:

  • Ninety percent of children with disabilities in developing countries don’t go to school.
  • Only 35 percent of adults with disabilities work, compared to 78 percent of those without disabilities.
  • People with disabilities are also more likely to be victims of violence or rape.

Harrelson’s research explores the treatment of Cambodia’s deaf community before and during the Khmer Rouge genocide. She also will follow Cambodians learning their national sign language, which is still being developed.

The U.S. believes disability rights are human rights and designs its aid programs to include those with disabilities.