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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Lifting the nation’s reputation        


The prognosis was grim. Nengah Widiasih, a four-year old in the isolated Balinese village of Karangasem, was so badly crippled she could only crawl. 

That was 1998.  She was a victim of polio.  She seemed doomed to live out a short life in penury and pain, illiterate, unemployable, a burden on her family, getting no government help.

This year she was the only woman representing Indonesia at the 20th Paralympics in London. Next year she plans to enter university.

Her extraordinary turnaround is the result of determination – her own and those of assertive advocates for the disabled working outside government.

So far Nengah has won medals in China, Thailand and Malaysia. At the 2011 ASEAN ParaGames she collected gold, lifting 87 kilograms. In four years time she hopes to be at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.  

Nengah competes in the 40-kilogram class, meaning she has to clock in under that weight and be as ruthless about her diet as any fashion model.

Powerlifting looks like a Star Chamber procedure for persuading sinners to recant. Athletes lie on their backs under a rack holding a horizontal bar.  Weights are added at each end; the bar has to be raised with arms fully extended. It’s a lone sport competing against a number. The preparation is psychological and physical.

Competing as a disabled athlete is no soft option. According to Paralympics International “winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus.”

 Despite her impressive achievements no business has offered sponsorship. While other athletes train in gear blossoming with the logos of local and multinational companies Nengah wears a simple red and white top emblazoned with one word – Indonesia.

“Paralympians don’t attract the same attention as other athletes,” she said.  “It shouldn’t be so. Nobody asks to be disabled. We train just as hard to achieve excellence on top of having a handicap.”

Indonesia doesn’t take the Paralympics seriously. Only four athletes (and 11 officials) went to London. This was the first year a team returned with a medal, David Jacobs’ bronze in table tennis.  The other contestants were swimmer Agus Ngaimin and long jumper Setiyo Budi Hartono.

Singapore, with just two per cent of the Archipelago’s population, sent eight athletes, Malaysia 23.

While the athletes were training in Solo, Indonesian Olympic Committee chairwoman Rita Subowo was reported as saying the small number was due to “a lack of preparation and poor facilities.

“In the future we must improve training facilities,” she said. “We must change our vision and make Olympics and Paralympics our highest targets.”

Nengah believes she contracted polio when a doctor used a dirty syringe, though the highly infectious disease is usually transmitted through contaminated food. 

Also known as infantile paralysis, polio was once a major threat to young children, particularly those in the tropics and poverty.  However aggressive international immunisation programs have almost eliminated the disease.

The last big outbreak in Indonesia was in 2005 when more than 200 children were paralysed. 

Nengah wasn’t the only member of her family stricken.  Her older brother Gede Suartaha was also infected.  The karmic view prevailed - that the commission of sins had caused the family’s distress.

The crippled kids were kept out of sight and school.  Their lives lurched into a new orbit only when discovered by Latra Nengah, working for the Yakkum rehabilitation center in Yogya, on a quest to winkle out the handicapped for help.

At first Nengah’s stonemason father refused fearing his daughter might disappear. Eventually he yielded for Latra had credibility and a silver tongue. Originally from the Balinese backblocks he’d been burned in an accident, treated by Yakkum and returned.  Later he started a rehab centre in Bali.

Nengah bussed to Yogya, got callipers, had an operation to help correct her twisted leg and spent two months in hospital.  After physiotherapy and so many injections she can no longer bear another needle she returned home upright, started school and took up powerlifting, a sport her brother had also entered.

She uses equipment supplied by Paralympics Indonesia and stored at the Yayasan Pembinaan Anak Cacat (Institute for the handicapped) where she boards and trains four times a week.

On a recent trip to New Zealand funded by Kiwi philanthropist Dr Gareth Morgan she saw world class facilities for the disabled, including purpose-built classrooms, special sports grounds and horse riding for the disabled.

Four wheel electric scooters, widely used by the disabled, also attracted.  However heavy traffic and potholed roads in Bali would make their use impractical, she said.

“We have laws in Indonesia ensuring wheelchair access to public buildings, but they don’t seem to get implemented,” she said.  “”My school has two stories and no lift.”

Nengah can walk for about 300 meters on level ground using a single crutch, but getting up stairs is difficult.  She strives to be independent, resisting help even when she takes a tumble.

Her overseas tours and successes have given her status and responsibility.  “I know that I’ve now become someone others look up to, and that means having to speak in public” she said. 

“People keep asking me questions.  They hear what I say but can never experience what I feel. So I prefer telling about myself through Facebook, communicating with everyone.”

Her entries include passionate poems like the following:

Mother, your noble teachings have settled my life.
My surroundings have changed, I have seen so much.
Sometimes I get washed away,
Sometimes I stand straight to challenge its heavy flow.

“If you have a dream you must work hard to achieve it,” she said. “I want all handicapped people to have the opportunities that I’ve had, and to follow me if that’s what they wish.  I hope to study at university – maybe computing – and keep competing.

“I want to bring back more medals for my country.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 9 November 2012)


No comments: