The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Push for handicapped rights in East Java © Duncan Graham 2008

A campaign is underway in East Java to force the next provincial governor to ease the plight of the disabled.

Spearheaded by prolific award-winning author and activist Ratna Indraswari Ibrahim, 59, of Malang, a five-member committee called Bhakti Nurani Yayasan (Foundation for the Handicapped) is demanding gubernatorial candidates reveal their policies on access by the handicapped to public facilities.

The election campaign for the position of East Java governor is well underway, though voting will not be held till later this year. Ratna said the candidates had yet to respond to letters.

She hoped to get wide public support from famous people and major companies willing to lead the way in adapting their buildings to make them accessible to all.

Indonesia has signed the 2007 UN Convention on the Rights and Dignity of People with Disabilities, but Ratna claimed there had been no action.

“There are about two million disabled people in East Java, but it seems that we are the forgotten ones,” she said.

“The authorities think we are not important and have no potential. This campaign isn’t for me – it’s for everyone who can’t get access to public facilities.”

Ratna is confined to a wheelchair after suffering from a complex form of rickets, a bone-wasting disease. Despite the severity of her handicap, which means she cannot use a keyboard and has to dictate her works, she’s had more than 300 short stories, poems and articles published.

Ratna said she had visited Australia and the US where building owners and civil authorities were obliged to install special parking areas, wheelchair ramps, wide doorways and toilets for the handicapped.

This is not her first attempt at change. In 1994 she was given a national award by then President Soeharto for agitating on behalf of the disabled – arguing that the public should see the person, not the problem, and that all citizens have the right to use public space.

“Roads in Malang and other cities are so crowded and in such bad repair that using a wheelchair is hazardous,” she said. “Travel is a real difficulty in Indonesia, especially in the villages.

“I have to be carried up stairs in public buildings. Handicapped people don’t want to rely on others. Because someone has a physical disability doesn’t mean that we can’t use our brains and contribute to society.

“There should also be a quota ensuring employers include people with disabilities in their workplaces.

“This campaign isn’t just for the handicapped. It’s a human rights issue that should concern all members of society. I want the media to take this up as a serious issue and stop focussing on matters like celebrities’ divorces.

“It’s my duty to try and get these important changes in place before I die.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 9 May 08)