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

Wednesday, April 05, 2017


Seeing the bigger need       

Blind supporters of the Arema Football Club
Few came alone to the birthday bash.
Pairs seemed mismatched, little kids and older men, mothers and adult daughters, relatives and friends holding hands though not side-by-side. More often one person was being led in front or steered from behind with a shoulder grip.
They shuffled uncertainly into the hall even though the welcomes were genuine, the seats prepared and the chocolate cream cake looked splendidly yummy.  All to celebrate the tenth birthday of Pamitra, the association representing blind people in Malang.
Though lunchboxes were bakery-warm the invitees carefully sniffed every banana-leaf package.  Not for freshness, but identification.
There was an energetic band with boisterous back-up singers; the amplifier man ensured everyone within a kilometer knew a special show was underway for some special people.

“Please don’t treat us as though we are stupid,” said former educator Erni Suliati (left with mother Mestika). ”We may not be able to see like you but that doesn’t mean we’re not capable. We can do more than just manual work.”
However in Indonesia there’s a tradition which slots the blind into performing music or becoming a pijat tunanetra a traditional masseur. Some seek a broader choice; Suliati, 38, was an elementary school teacher before brain tumor surgery two years ago went wrong and robbed her of sight.
“I can still care for my two children though I depend on my mother, Mestika, to help me get around,” Suliati said. “I don’t blame anyone for what’s happened.  This is a test for me.”
It was the same with other handicapped celebrants; whatever misfortune had brought them to this point in life they faced the future with resignation, frequently saying that their blindness was from God – so what could they do?  It was a response that litigious Westerners seeking someone or something to blame might find difficult to fathom.
Told of the situation in Australasia where the disabled are paid a regular allowance and given access to special training and facilities, the blind and their carers reacted not with envy or disbelief but wan smiles. This was the stuff of fantasy, like trips to Mars.
“There are no guide dogs because Muslims are not allowed to have dogs,” said helper Puji Rahayu. “Some people have canes but the sidewalks aren’t suitable.”  The smart sticks which use sonar to warn of hazards would never stop pinging on Indonesia’s cluttered and dangerous streets. Pedestrian crossing signals which beep to alert the blind would be ignored by motorists.
So reliance has to be on other people. Rahayu only became aware of the need when a neighbor turned blind.  So she started leading him to shops.  “I’m OK and have a good life and business,” she said. “When I understood his situation I thought it was my responsibility to help.”

That man is Hendro Setiawan (right) and now head of Pamitra. His wife is also blind; their two sighted children are committed to school so for special events he calls on Rahayu.
“As a community we care for each other in many ways, though it would be better with more government help and our own meeting place,” he said. “We even organize futsal the five-a-side indoor soccer.” (The ball makes a jangling sound and players shout their intent).
Pamitra’s network includes becak (pedicab) drivers who are understanding and patient for some members are doubly disabled like Anis Hidayati, 29. She was born blind and later turned deaf. If her doctors know why, they haven’t told their patient.

Hidayati’s father died when she was three so she relies on her stoical Mom Musyarofah (left).  Now aged 60 the position has reversed and she depends on the income her daughter earns through massages using a table and training provided by the local government.  Sometimes Hidayati makes Rp 30,000 (about US $2.40) a day.
To be more independent and communicate with clients Hidayati carries a card where the alphabet has been written in capital letters with the shapes pricked out beneath, a home-made version of Braille. The sighted person asks questions by holding Hidayati’s finger and touching the letters to spell words.
Her mother bought a wrist watch with raised digits over the numbers so she can tell the time. There are now handphones on the market with similar markings.
“Everyone wants to be successful but my destiny is to a masseur,” said Achmad Jazuli, 60.  “I hope that someone develops a device to tell the value of rupiah notes.  I have to ask friends to tell me how much I have.”
The principal hosts for the event were the local departments of Social Welfare (Dinas Sosial) and Tax (Dinas Pendapatan) backed by a couple of small businesses. Malang Mayor Muhammad Anton was expected but failed to front.
Dinas Sosial head Pipih Trastuti said her agency was helping about 80 sightless people through training courses and gatherings like the birthday party. “People should never underestimate the handicapped,” she said. “The blind often have more acute senses, like being able to smell and hear better than you and I.
“When you can’t see a face you have to rely on voice to assess whether someone is friendly or otherwise. The blind identify me and my staff from our footsteps.”
Around 1.5 per cent of the population has a serious sight problem; that’s more than three million people. According to the World Health Organisation about half the cases are genetically transmitted or the result of accidents and diseases like glaucoma. 
The rest are caused by cataracts.  These can now be treated through relatively simple surgery, but Pamitra head Setiawan said the cost of around Rp 7 million (US $525) an eye was beyond the reach of most people at the party.
“What we also want is for society to change its mindset towards the blind,” he said.  “We can be extraordinary if we get the right support.”

First published in The Jakarta Post 5 April 2017

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