December 26, 2023
JAKARTA – For people with disabilities in Indonesia, most public places remain unfriendly with no tactile paving blocks on pavements, lifts at railway stations or ramps for wheelchairs, let alone audible traffic signals at pedestrian crossings to help the visually impaired cross roads.
On streets where such textured blocks exist for people who are blind, street vendors or motorbikes often occupy them.
And for the visually impaired or those using wheelchairs, rejections by employers are common despite a prevailing law that guarantees their equal rights to get jobs.
Ten people with disabilities – running on eight political parties’ tickets – are competing in the legislative elections on Feb 14, 2024, in the hope of becoming one of the 580 MPs, with a view to change such harsh realities.
Indonesia has nearly 23 million people with disabilities, or 8.5 per cent of its overall population. Around 1.1 million of them are eligible to vote in the polls, according to the General Election Commission.
But there are currently no MPs with physical disabilities in Parliament.
One of the 10 candidates is Mr Sikdam Hasyim Gayo, co-founder of the Disabilities Youth Centre, an organisation which defends the rights of people with disabilities in education, the workplace, health and public services.
Hoping to represent constituents in his home town of Aceh province in Sumatra, he is backed by the United Development Party (PPP), an Islamic party.
Mr Sikdam lost his sight permanently in a car accident in 2010 – the same year he won a scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication in Japan.
His plans to study in Japan scuttled. He spent the next two years struggling to get accepted at universities in Jakarta, and ended up studying in an open university instead.
“They rejected me because I’m blind. Such a situation still happens now,” the 33-year-old told The Straits Times. “There is a stigma in Indonesia that if you are disabled – you are blind, deaf or using a wheelchair – you must study at schools for the disabled, and cannot study at your choice of a regular school. This is discrimination in education.”
Even with a degree earned overseas that is equal to a master’s degree today and organisational skills to supplement his education, Mr Sikdam has difficulty finding a job.
“In my CV, I did not mention that I am blind. I was invited for job interviews because of my solid CV. But when I went for interviews, they treated me poorly. The interviewers became unfriendly, and told me that the jobs were tough, even though I believed they were not.”
He added: “Because I am blind, they thought I could not do the job and they were uncomfortable with my condition.”
Mr Sikdam was given the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award – a global youth development programme promoting personal growth, leadership and community involvement – in 2014 due to his advocacy work. He now wants to “fight within” the decision-making system, to ensure that future policies in various sectors, such as employment, education and health, “accommodate the interests of the disabled”.
“Based on my observation, discrimination occurs because people and the government neither understand nor care about the disabled,” he said. Should he be elected, he will encourage governors, regents, sub-district leaders and village chiefs “to open up to people with disabilities and pay attention to their problems”.
Another legislative candidate is comedian Usnan Batubara, better known as Ucok Baba, who is only 91cm tall. The 52-year-old, who is running for a seat in Java’s Banten province, said he entered politics to defend the rights of people with disabilities, like him.
“In Indonesia, we have not seen equality yet. Who else will fight if not me?” he was quoted as saying by news outlet Detik.com in September.
Indonesia became a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011, which in essence bans discrimination against people with disabilities.
Under the country’s 2016 Law on Persons with Disabilities, at least 2 per cent of workers in the government, state-owned enterprises and region-owned enterprises must be people with disabilities. For private companies, at least 1 per cent of their employees must be individuals with disabilities.
However, there are no penalties for non-compliance.
Mr Sikdam said that if elected, he would propose a “reward and punishment” mechanism in implementing regulations concerning people with disabilities, such as tax cuts for companies hiring them.
“If they are friendly to the disabled, they will get incentives. But if they are discriminative, they will be punished,” he said.
Still, the government has not been idle in tackling issues faced by those with disabilities. From 2019 to 2020, the government passed several technical regulations to implement the 2016 law, which serves as the legal basis to execute an inclusive development agenda, according to presidential special staff member Angkie Yudistia, who is hearing-impaired and has set up a foundation that helps people with disabilities to find suitable jobs.
Mr Fendo Parama Sardi, manager of the Cheshire Indonesia Foundation, said Indonesia tends to view such people as “objects of charity” and give them aid, but it would be better if society gives them equal opportunities in areas such as employment and education instead. The organisation provides vocational training from woodworking to English learning.
“The elected (person with disability) can support disability mainstreaming and implement existing laws on people with disabilities,” he said.
Mr Ajad Sudrajad, chairman of the council of Jakarta’s chapter of the Indonesian Association of Visually Impaired People, said people with disabilities need those in power to uphold their rights and address their interests.
“Politics is one of the means to change policies and we (those with disabilities) must be in it,” he said. “Hopefully those elected can express the aspirations of fellow disabled people in Parliament.”