Creating A Fairer Indonesia For People With Disabilities

Earlier this year, Indonesia made a significant shift in the use of a human rights-based approach to the issue of disability by passing a new law, Law Number 8 of 2016 on Persons with Disabilities. This marked a positive legal step by the government, having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD) in 2011. However, people with disabilities in Indonesia still have poorer health outcomes, lower education achievements, higher rates of poverty, and reduced access to employment and economic participation. As we approach the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd, it is important to examine how social inclusion and human rights education are essential in Indonesia to create a fairer world for people with disabilities.

The Gap between Law and Practice

Over the last decade, Indonesia has made significant progress in alleviating poverty and raising per capita income, as well as in making international human rights commitments by ratifying treaties that protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities. Doing so, the government has also adopted a number of laws and policies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. For instance, Law No. 39/1999 on Human Rights states that people with disabilities have the right to facilitation and special treatment; Law No. 28/2002 on the Construction of Buildings stipulates that facilities should be made accessible for persons with disabilities; and the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration circulated a letter relating to job placement of workers with disabilities in the private sector. In 2014, Indonesia passed a new Mental Health Law to ensure a humane and dignified treatment of people with psychosocial disabilities and the recently-passed disability law also replaced the social-based approach that was used to draft the previous 1997 Disability Law. The new law was passed after decades of advocacy and campaigning from disability activists.

Despite having the legal foundations that are required, Indonesia has significant challenges in living up to the commitments of these laws and treaties. Indonesia is home to millions of people with disabilities, despite an uncertain data accuracy – for instance, the number of people with disabilities between the World Health Organization and government’s official figures demonstrated a significant difference. A large percentage of people with disabilities have a poor quality of life; there are very limited services and facilities and many go without access to specialist medical treatment, assistive technology and carers and the severe lack of accessible public transportation systems and road access limit their mobility. People with disabilities are more likely to be in poverty – a study by University of Indonesia reported that the poverty rate for households with disabilities is 13.3 percent, which is three times higher than households without people with disabilities at 10 percent and also 50 percent higher when compared with urban households – and are often socially excluded and face discrimination in accessing education and employment on a daily basis. The same study reported that almost 70 percent of children with disabilities have no access to education and children with disabilities only had a 66.8 percent chance of completing primary education. They also reported that having a mild disability gave a person only a 64.9 percent chance of being employed. Reflecting on these statistics, we should look at some cases and successes that could provide lessons towards promoting a better future for Indonesians with disabilities.

Changing the Way People Perceive Disabilities

So what is next after Indonesia’s new disability law? The new Law 8/2016 is an excellent start as this law marks the changing of perceptions from using a social-based approach in the previous law to a rights-based approach. The key to the implementation of human rights, however, lays not only in the legal foundation but also in social attitudes and education. Individuals with disabilities are often socially excluded and face discrimination in social- and community life. Slamet Thohari, a widely known Indonesian activist for people with disabilities and a secretary of Brawijaya University’s recently-opened Centre for Disability Studies and Services, outlined how various religious and cultural traditions play a role in shaping societal perceptions of disability – for instance as objects of charity, gifted people with magic, or a medical “problem”. Thus, there is much work left to do to challenge the current perceptions amongst a broader civil society.

There are some cases of social inclusion in Indonesia that could provide useful lessons in ensuring a better future for people with disabilities. One such exceptional example is the case of the Bengkala village in Bali: The small village in Buleleng, North Bali, is known as “the deaf village” where 42 out of 2,749 local residents were born with hearing impairments. A study published in the Journal of Medical Genetics found that the congenital hearing impairments in Bengkala are caused by an autosomal recessive mutation at the nonsyndromic congenital recessive deafness gene, DFNB3, locus.The name ‘Bengkala’ itself means ‘a place to hide’. In this village, the residents are able to primarily communicate using kata kolok, a rural sign language that is independent from the Indonesian Sign Language (ISL) and Balinese language. Local children learn kata kolok along with Balinese and Indonesian that plants a sense of tolerance and equality among the residents. Those with hearing impairments also perform a unique dance routine called Janger Kolok which has been a part of the local culture for decades. The Bengkala village presents an important lesson on how tolerance, information, and equality can be embedded in local communities. Another recent case can be seen in the increasing number of individuals with disabilities who engage in sport in Indonesia. The country participates in international events for people with disabilities; a Balinese powerlifter, Ni Nengah Widiasih, won a bronze medal in the 2016 Summer Paralympics. She received IDR 1 billion, or around USD 74,000 and a monthly allowance of IDR 10 million, or around USD 740, from the Indonesian government after her success. Widiasih is viewed and admired by many as an Indonesian heroine who has successfully overcome adversity and has received wide media coverage for her achievements.

Positive stories like the above examples provide an important lesson for the Indonesian government to alter negative societal perception and attitudes on disability into a more positive perception where people with disabilities are viewed as equal and capable of doing something despite some of their particular differences. It is important for persons with disabilities to be able to live in a tolerant society, where they can have more independence, become more involved in public activities and work to achieve their dreams. The media coverage of Widiasih’s  achievements should be used to change negative societal perceptions of disabilities and to highlight the ongoing inequalities that are faced by persons with them in Indonesia. The government needs to do even more than awarding an achievement fund to athletes as received by Widiasih after her bronze medal success; the recent paralympic games achievement should be a lesson and a motivation to provide even more accessible facilities for millions of other people with disabilities in various fields so that they all can have equal access to realise their full potential and to increase their overall wellbeing.

Widiasih endured a long struggle and there are still millions of Indonesians with disabilities who still struggle on a daily basis and their challenges need to be met with the improvements of their social determinants of health. As technology and infrastructure develops in a modern Indonesia, the government has to ensure that public transportation, buildings, public facilities, and technology and information tools are accessible for individuals with disabilities. Another important point to note is also to ensure that the recent introduction of the National Social Health Insurance Scheme (Jaminan Kesehatan Nasional/JKN), which has allowed millions of people with no or limited health insurance to access medical treatments for free, is utilised to allow persons with disabilities to receive medical help and assistance they need. Last but not least, using a rights-based approach in disability law would not be enough if it is not followed by human rights education. This education is important for all Indonesians, since it is the key to empowerment and to a tolerant society – the more knowledgeable and aware people are about their rights and the rights of others, the more likely they are to respect, defend and protect these rights. Knowledge is also essential in ensuring that a broader civil society are more involved in policy-making processes and the evaluation of the programmes for people with disabilities, as well as advocating needs such as the need to collect and measure stronger data on the number of people with disabilities so that it would be useful for providing services and ensuring the political rights of them. Knowledge about the human rights is also an important way to help holding both the central and regional governments accountable for their actions.

Future Directions

It is crucial for the government and other non-State actors to give a firmer commitment and greater effort to uphold the rights of persons with disabilities. Accessible and inclusive public transportation and other facilities, as well as human rights education and social inclusion, need to be improved to support overall wellbeing. While disability-inclusive development comes with financial expenses, there are higher human costs of exclusion since excluding people with disabilities from equal access to employment and education is not only counterproductive to both community and global development, but most importantly, it is against the basic human right principles of equality.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a reminder for the government to keep their promise in implementing the new law and creating changes that are needed to achieve inclusivity and to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to health, education, and employment.

Citta Widagdo is a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham Law School, where she researches the domestic implementation of the human right to health in Indonesia. She has fibromyalgia syndrome and has spoken and written about her experience as a student with a chronic illness. She can be found on Twitter as @Citta_Widagdo.


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