The Woeful State of Education for the Disabled in Indonesia

Seven-year-old Puji, a child in Jakarta, was born with physical disabilities in both her hands and feet and is confined to a wheelchair. She is unable to write normally, leaving her unable to enjoy the dreams of many children of her age. She can’t play outside with her friend. But all she can think about is going to school next July.

That is problematical. Her parents are still struggling to find a school for her. They have visited almost all elementary schools in the city for a glimpse of hope that one of them is willing to accept her for what she can do, not for what she can’t. Every time they come home without good news, they smile anyway in the attempt to reassure their restless daughter.

After 73 years since independence, the Indonesian government is still struggling to provide appropriate access to education, healthcare, employment, and public facilities to the disabled. As a result, children like Puji are still being denied the right of a prosperous life. The needs of no less than 37 million citizens who share Puji’s fate have been neglected.

Restricted Access for People With Disabilities

The problem is that disability remains a taboo subject. There is a common perception that those with disabilities are less intelligent, less able, and hence incapable of becoming functioning members of society. Consequently, many are outcasts, falling through the cracks of traditionally accepted respectability. They are denied their rights, their equal opportunity, and are often cast aside by mainstream society.

The government’s policies and system have allowed little room for the disabled to develop as functioning and respectable individuals. As with Puji, many remain unable to access education, employment, and even public facilities.

Pedestrian paths are bumpy with gaping holes and ramps are rare to be found in the entrances of stations, banks or most government offices. The disabled are frequently denied from certain jobs as they are perceived incapable of the physical act of just getting around. Employers often have no clue on how to accommodate their needs. In many cases there is obvious discrimination, with qualified candidates are not employed because of the firms’ lack of experience in accommodating disabled employees.

Not only are rights of the disabled being neglected, only a few institutions and organizations provide help. Laws to protect the rights of this marginalized community remain words on paper. The disabled are still underrepresented in the government and policy-making process. Consequently, their specific needs have not been heard or addressed properly.

People with Disabilities and Education

Returning to Puji’s story, even though Law No. 8/2016 on Persons with Disabilities has fully justified their overdue rights to a quality education, the reality remains far from what we pictured would happen once it was legalized. Education is still the greatest obstacle. Public schools are often simply not ready to admit and accommodate students with special needs. Pressure must be applied to schools to force them to provide suitable facilities. If the schools can’t meet those responsibilities, students have no option but to be relegated to special needs education which often have no appropriate curriculum.

As an example, legislation passed in 2014 explicitly requires that the curriculum content for special high schools for blind and deaf students be equal to that of regular high schools. Although the deaf and blind have the same abilities and even though they require different facilities to help the learning process, this disparity in curriculum suggests that the current education system fails to understand their needs.

At the same time, regular schools that claim to be inclusive are still unable to uphold these principles. Many children with mild disabilities, although medically and mentally able to study alongside their non-disabled friends, are being denied enrollment. Some who do manage to register face continuous, different discrimination because their needs are not fulfilled by the school and often teachers have little competence to handle a class that have students with various needs and abilities.

We can no longer avoid the responsibility to settle these longstanding issues facing our disabled children, friends, and colleagues. Especially after all the facts have been presented before our eyes. Education, supposed to be a melting point for differences, should be fair without exception. It is in school where tolerance, kindness and respect are taught. Being different physically does not mean being less capable or less intelligent. There is absolutely no correlation between physical condition with one’s determination and ability.

It is clear that real, genuine, and concrete efforts must be taken for our disabled brothers and sisters to have their rights fulfilled. More voices must join those speaking out. In the past few years, a growing number of organizations have been established in the country to help the disabled to access equal education opportunities.

Sekolabilitas, which fights for the rights of the disabled, is a case in point. The organization aims to assist children with disabilities in earning their rights at schools. It is designed to help public schools in Indonesia to identify and fulfill suitable accommodations and facilities for disabled students to enable them study at both public and special schools. Even though Sekolabilitas operates primarily in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces, a number of other organizations with similar objectives have been established elsewhere in the country.

Even though the existence of non-government institutions dealing with disability issue in Indonesia has helped many disabled in obtaining their rights and should continuously be supported by us, the ultimate goal is to create a disabled-friendly Indonesia where such organizations are no longer needed because the right of individuals like Puji are already integrated within the wider society and hence are automatically fulfilled.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Dikanaya Tarahita is a freelance writer from Indonesia and studied HR Management and Industrial Relations at the University of Manchester.