See the person, not the problem
The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members. Nobel Prize winner and author Pearl S. Buck.
The World Health Organization estimates about 15 per cent of the global population are disabled. In Indonesia that translates as 36 million. Duncan Graham reports on the handicapped helping themselves.
This story could have been about a cripple squatting at an intersection, his self-esteem in the gutter, hoping pitying motorists might cast a coin to ease their conscience. That’s how many of the disabled survive in Indonesia.
Instead it’s about a dignified artist who has done better than most despite a handicap that would drive lesser people to mope, rage or suicide.
Sadikin Pard was born in Malang, East Java, in October 1966. He entered the world without arms. Despite great advances in medical science, the cause of half of all birth defects is unknown. He was the eighth of nine children. All the others are normal.
“Birth control wasn’t popular in those days,” he said. “My parents were traditional people, but exceptional. Their priority was education. They never treated me with pity.”
Also exemplary is the way they reacted to their son’s disabilities. Instead of hiding him to deflect neighbor nastiness, for such births were considered a curse for imagined sins, Sadikin went to school.
Aided by his siblings he rapidly learned how to use his feet and mouth to compensate for a lack of arms. Handless, sure – helpless, not.
Was there discrimination? There must have been, but Sadikin moves on: “Being handicapped doesn’t mean we’re unintelligent or can’t contribute to society,” he said. “As they say in the West – see the person, not the problem.”
For many children from poor families an elementary education is enough. The kids have got to get out and work. Sadikin kept learning.
Not only could he write and draw, he also mastered chess. At Muhammadiyah University he studied psychology.
By now he might have been practising professionally, assuming he could have found an equal opportunity employer. Instead he read a newspaper story that changed his life.
It was about an European organization offering scholarships to help disabled artists get the security of a regular income. He applied and was accepted in 1989.
The scholarship provided him with equipment, materials, tuition and a stipend for three years. His work improved. Eventually he became a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World, internationally better known as VDMFK after the German title.
Although it has more than 800 artists on its books from 85 countries, only nine are Indonesians. Tiny Singapore has 14.
“I don’t know why this is so,” Sadikin said. “Of course many can’t be artists. I was lucky. I always liked to draw and paint. VDMFK isn’t a social organization – it’s commercial. I send them ten paintings a year. Our work is evaluated and then distributed to publishers for sale, mainly to illustrate calendars and cards.”
At a two-storey house in the Malang suburb of Sawojajar where Sadikin lives with his wife Sutini, 45, and their two teenage sons, workmen are building a studio to ease crowding. There’s a new car in the yard – all from the proceeds of his work.
The couple have been to European and Asian countries, meeting disabled artists, exchanging ideas and anecdotes, transforming perceived tragedies into positive outcomes.
Sadikin prefers to use oils and specializes in landscapes, though he’s now branched into social commentary. Some of his bigger canvasses feature characters from the wayang kulit [shadow puppet] theater in modern urban settings, their batik more money than cloth.
“I’m concerned at the commercialization of society,” he explained. “I want to change Indonesia so people are better educated and smarter. These paintings don’t go abroad.”
VDMFK maintains quality control. The works it sells are technically competent, the subjects familiar, not confrontational. Pets, landscapes and seascapes, still life and nature. One of Sadikin’s most popular international prints featured a Balinese dancer on a calendar cover.
“If you dream low, you go low,” said Sadikin. “I have many teachers, my wife, nature, and our friends.
“I teach art at an orphanage. Like it or not we are role models and ambassadors representing the millions who are disabled.
“We have to accept what we have – behind a handicap is a reason. My challenge is to show I’m equal to anyone.”
Being disabled is not a choice
Although the final principle of the nation’s Pancasila philosophy is Keadilan Sosial bagi seluruh Rakyat Indonesia [social justice for all citizens] this doesn’t always get translated as State care for the disadvantaged and disabled.
“It’s a fine ideal, but there’s a disconnect between the words and what happens in the field,” said rehabilitation specialist Dr Djoko Witjaksono (left)
“Many handicapped children don’t get an education. In Indonesia the disabled are still considered different. We are behind world standards in providing opportunities for acceptance, training and employment.”
Dr Djoko, who is also on the board of Malang’s Yayasan Pembinaan Anak Cacat [YPAC – Foundation for Educating Disabled Children] said there were only 17 YPACs in the nation. They were originally established to cater for polio victims, but now handle other impairments.
|Cynthia, 9, helps her friend |
YPAC student Eka Aprilia, 9,
disabled as a premature baby.
“Most disabled children suffer double handicaps – physical and mental,” he said. “We need at least one YPAC in every regency. That’s 405. The leaders of the country should look at what’s happening and respond. We have the resources. But it’s not just a government issue – families and society also needs to take ownership.”
Indonesian sidewalks show how the disabled are ignored – many are full of holes and hazards. Then there are steep steps into shops and public buildings – public toilets with narrow doors and no rails. How does anyone in a wheel chair or who uses crutches, cope?
Ma Chung University, which does have disabled access to its buildings, joined with other donors to sponsor a seminar to mark YPAC Malang’s 60th anniversary.
Economic and business lecturer Hallie Sahertian (right) brought four of his students to the event “so they understand the issues in society.”
“Being disabled is not a choice,” he said. “Part of citizenship is having social empathy. Education doesn’t stop in class – people need to know what’s going on beyond their school and get involved.”
Self help – not charity
If an art work is outstanding should buyers be concerned whether the creator is a man or women, young or old, able or disabled?
Had Shakespeare written his plays with a quill between his toes would we admire his works more, or subject them to softer criticism?
VDMFK tackles these ethical issues by reminding members that high artistic standards must be maintained because: ‘In general [critics] do not take into consideration the fact that most works by mouth and foot painters have been created under severe physical restraints and difficulties.’
The VDMFK, which started in 1957, describes itself as a ‘democratic collective’ and a ‘for-profit’ business. Its motto is Self Help – Not Charity.
Its marketing strategy is to mail unsolicited cards and calendars just before Christmas hoping recipients will buy. Although some complain this is junk mail and bin the cards, the major threat is the Internet.
Surface mail is rapidly declining; the era of a card in an envelope delivered by a post person will soon be history. Earlier this year VDMFK urged its members to ‘assert themselves’ in the market to help ‘enlarge our client base’ through exhibitions and workshops.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 May 2015)