Life is like a question
We all make snap decisions about those we meet. Are they hostile, or friendly? Trying to cheat or help? Should we get close, or avoid?
Mukhanif Yasin Yusuf is a master interpreter of reactions, a skilled catcher of the flickering doubt. A top student and activist from Yogyakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada Hanif knows not all offer the respect he liberally gives to others.
For although polite and humble his behavior can be a mite disarming. A tad too earnest? He talks loudly, though not brashly, and stares intently. Is he dangerous?
No, he’s deaf, and this is his message:
“There can be stigmas attached to being disabled. Some see us as weak as pitiful, as objects for rehabilitation, or even as the sources of social problems and diseases, on the margin, maybe even criminal.
“When people sit around in cafes do they discuss what it must be like as a disabled person? Do you wonder how we feel and what we do?
“Just close your eyes for at least 15 seconds; focus on imagining yourself as disabled and denied work because of your condition. You are refused entry to school and university as you do not meet the criteria of being physically and mentally healthy.
“You cannot climb the stairs of a multi- storey building for your legs are paralyzed. Or maybe you're scorned and regarded as mad, thought fit for a mental hospital.
“Ponder these issues and remember that unlike you, we cannot open our eyes after 15 seconds and let our imagination fade. Do you think we can be returned to ‘normal’ as determined by community consensus?
“If a blind person is trained as a masseur should we say this is an honor when that person could be a scientist?
“Are the disabled not part of the community? Under God’s Law all are human beings. Sometimes this is forgotten. Should we be shunned, put in a separate environment, deemed unfit to mingle with others? We have minds to feel, think and act. We belong to society too, and we contribute.”
Hanif remembers swimming in the Yellow River as an 11 year old. Taking a dip was no big deal for the kids of the Central Java village of Jambudesa and the little lad wanted to be with his mates.
His Mom had told him and his five siblings to keep away for good reason. The river’s name alone gave warning enough, but who wants to hear a carping elder?
“Everything was done in the river,” he recalled. “It was used for washing, bathing and as a toilet by people and cattle.”
A few days later he noticed a ringing in his left ear. His hearing had never been good, but this was something different.
Perhaps because he’d disobeyed his mother he didn’t tell about his problem. When it got worse and his parents noticed they assumed tonsillitis.
But a medical check showed this was no simple example of the infection otitis externa, better known as swimmer’s ear, common, painful but treatable
This was a more serious bacterial infection and by the time it was diagnosed his hearing had been irreparably damaged. Now he was totally deaf. On the cusp of adolescence, quivering with life’s possibilities is not the best time to make a balanced assessment of the future.
“I felt as though I had died,” he said. ‘I wanted to kill myself. I left school, came back, and left again. For two years I stayed away. I didn’t know what to do except hide myself.
“I was so angry with God. What had happened was unfair. I was good at school, particularly mathematics. I wanted to go to university, a journey that was rare for students from Jambudesa. Now it seemed I’d lost everything.
“My mother said: ‘Life is like a question which we have to answer. How do we face the future? If you don’t go to school how will you ever succeed?’
“My father was a teacher in the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) so I knew the importance of education. I understood what Mom said and followed her advice.”
Indonesia is the better for his decision because Hanif, now 25, has become a leading advocate for disabled students at UGM where he has just completed his first degree in less than four years, ahead of his colleagues.
Instead of maths he turned to the pen to express his emotions. At school he wrote short stories, screenplays, poems and even scientific articles, winning prizes and getting published locally and provincially.
His first partly-biographical novel Jejak Pejalan Sunyi (Walking Quietly) has been published by Grasindo. How he wants to pursue higher degrees and an academic career.
Hanif described his hopes in a poem:
I wanted to explore the world through words on this green campus...
Words that have been made can still breathe...
Coming late to deafness meant he never formally learned signing but has developed lip-reading skills. When these fail he asks for questions to be written.
Hanif talks eloquently and passionately about the plight of the disabled in Indonesia, sometimes reducing his listeners to tears.
“It takes time to get to know others and find my confidence,” he said. “I need people to look at me directly when they speak. Some find that difficult.”
Once on campus he set about founding the Students with Disabilities Forum, lobbying for recognition and access to all facilities, writing and speaking about the issues he and his friends faced:.
Rector Dr Dwikorita Karnawati told The Jakarta Post that UGM had now removed all restrictions against enrolment.
“We must find special ways to help the disabled study and reach their full potential for their benefit and for the good of society,” she said.
“I don’t know the best ways but we can study what is happening globally, improve our wisdom and listen to advocates like Hanif, an exceptional student helping bring about real change.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 January 2017)