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Asian Para Games Brings Disability Rights in Indonesia Into Focus

Voice of America
17 Oct 2018, 19:05 GMT+10

JAKARTA - Indonesia's capital hosted the third-ever Asian Para Games this month with the theme "The Inspiring Spirit and Energy of Asia," aiming to promote awareness and empowerment for people with disabilities. But while recent years have seen some progress when it comes to disability rights, activists say the country still has a long way to go.

According to Indonesia's 2016 National Labor Force Survey, some 12.15 percent of the population reported to be living with a disability - representing some 23 million people. The government introduced the first national People with Disabilities Act in 2016, which importantly shifted the country's approach from one of charity to a rights-based one emphasizing empowerment.

Late last year, 14 city mayors signed the Charter of the Network of Indonesian Mayors for Inclusive Cities in Indonesia, aimed at better supporting participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of life in the archipelago's urban centers. "The sidewalks in Indonesia they're so, so bad so a wheelchair cannot use it," said Slamet Thohari, head of the Center for Disability Studies and Services at Brawijaya University in Malang.

Brawijaya is the first higher education institution in Indonesia with an affirmative action policy to provide places, scholarship and support for people with disabilities.

Sport and inclusion

"During this October, accessibility in Jakarta continues to be improved through the Bebas Batas (Boundary Free) Art Festival at the National Gallery and through sport with the Asian Para Games," said Annisa Rahmania, a Deaf activist who works with Jakarta Barrier Free Tourism to promote accessible travel and public awareness of disability rights.

At the closing ceremony of the Games, the Asian Paralympic Committee's President Majid Rashed praised Indonesia and proclaimed that it was "the best Asian Para Games" to date. Nevertheless, the head of Indonesia's Federation of Disabled Persons, Mahmud Fasa, publicly criticized the organizing committee for repeatedly using the outdated Indonesian term "difabel" to refer to people with disabilities rather than "disabilitas". Indonesia's mens para swimming team was unable to compete because their coach forgot to register them for competition.

Thohari, who himself is in a wheelchair, said many venues for the Jakarta Games were inadequately accessible for people with disabilities and that disability awareness among volunteers for the Games was also lacking. "When I was there then I asked to the volunteer, 'do you know the way to the accessible toilet?', the volunteer doesn't know," he said.

"People with disabilities should have been involved since the beginning with planning, process until evaluation," Rahmania told VOA via WhatsApp message.

"If you are working with a disabilities program ... without people with disabilities, it's nonsense," said Thohari. "Nothing about us, without us."

Invisible, in chains

Stigma around disability and mental illness is "punishing", meaning that people with disabilities are often "invisible in Indonesian society," said Kriti Sharma, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's (HRW) disability rights program. "They stay at home, they do not go out much."

Earlier this month, HRW released a report which showed that while there has been progress in combating the practice, thousands of mentally ill Indonesians remained shackled. Formally banned in 1977, at least 12,800 Indonesians with psychosocial disabilities remained locked up or chained as of July 2018.

Sharma told VOA that "as soon as there was a lack of mental health services, families resorted to shackling because they struggled and felt they had no option." She attributes lower rates in recent years to a "semi-revolutionary" government program, which entails training grassroots workers to collect data, providing counseling and medication, and "rescuing people from chains." It has already reached 16.2 million households.

Getting into work

Survey data from 2015 showed that one in five people with disabilities reported never having gone to school, while less than half said they were working. According to Tendy Gunawan, a program officer for disability inclusion with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Jakarta, "a majority of the work done [by people with disabilities] is informal and there is quite a large gap, for example, in terms of salary. Access to transport is one obstacle for people with disabilities to participate in the labor market."

"So many people are jobless... why? Because not many factories, not many industries ... want to hire them," said Thohari. "By promoting access to employment, of course, we can increase the wider community's awareness of people with disabilities, who are often forgotten," Gunawan added.

"The Indonesian government needs to have awareness raising campaigns and educate the public on disability and mental health," said Sharma. "The government has taken a very promising step by integrating mental health into primary services. While that's crucial, it's not enough to tackle the stigma and eliminate practices like shackling."

"They still regarded that I'm incomplete," said Thohari. "I don't see that my disability is a deficiency, it's just my difference."

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