As the dust settles on the Indonesia 2008 Asian Para Games, there is no shortage of inspiring stories. For the past week, Jakarta has been plastered with images of triumph over adversity as it celebrated the achievements of 2,762 athletes from 43 countries who had come to compete in 18 sports – breaking records and challenging public perceptions in the process.
Billboards celebrated athletes such as swimmer Jendi Pengabean – who lost his entire left leg aged 12 in a motorcycle accident – and female powerlifter Ni Nengah Widiasih, who uses a wheelchair having lost the use of both legs at age four.
But away from the inclusive messages and celebrations of the Para Games, Indonesia – like many countries in Southeast Asia – has a mixed record in supporting rights for disabled people. People with physical or mental health conditions typically face barriers towards securing a good education, finding a job or living independent lives, campaigners say.
Due to a lack of public understanding, treatment or facilities, they can be dismissed as a burden on society or their families. And in the worst cases, they can be treated like prisoners, illegally locked up in their own homes or held against their will in cages or chains in state-run institutions.
Human Rights Watch this month said 12,800 people with mental-health conditions were shackled or locked up in confined spaces in Indonesia as of this July. The number has fallen from nearly 18,800 in 2016, but the continuing reality of the practice remains shocking.
A 52-year-old woman with a mental health condition was one of many rescued by community health workers in Cijeruk, near Bogor in West Java. “We locked her in her room for five years,” her sister said. “She would sleep on the floor; she couldn’t walk because her muscles had stopped working. We gave her a bucket to urinate and defecate in. It was very smelly. It made me very sad.”
The so-called shackling of people against their will has been illegal for 40 years in Indonesia, but in this and many other cases families feel they have no alternative. People with physical disabilities likewise find it difficult or expensive to access treatment and rehabilitation, and many are offered therapies such as faith healing, herbal remedies or massage instead of medical care.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 15 per cent of the world’s population has a disability. In Southeast Asia that would be equivalent to almost 90 million people. Yet Asian countries’ own figures are usually well below this estimate: the number of disabled people in Indonesia varies from 6 million (2.5 per cent of the population) to more than 30 million (12.5 per cent), depending on the source. In part this is due to varying definitions of what counts as a disability, or poor data collection, but campaigners say it also reflects a tendency to ignore the issues.
Aria Indiawati, the head of Pertuni, the Indonesian Blind Association, says people with disabilities in Indonesia are still typically seen as objects of charity and pity rather than individuals who deserve respect and equal opportunities.
“There has been progress in recent years, but it has come more from the disabled community themselves rather than the government,” she said. “There are official state programmes, a Disability Act signed in 2016 and international agreements, but the impact is not felt. As a society, Indonesia is not fulfilling the UNCRDP [United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons] definition of making ‘reasonable accommodation’ to support disabled people in daily life.”
State schools are often unwilling to admit or accommodate pupils with disabilities, she added, while special-needs schools are few in number and the quality of teaching is often poor. And although interventions in early years can make a huge difference in terms of children learning to overcome their conditions, just 12.6 per cent of children with disabilities in Indonesia receive early interventions to help them, compared with 50 per cent in East Timor and 63 per cent in Singapore, according to UN figures.
“It’s not easy to change the paradigm,” Indiawati says. “In Indonesia it seems to take longer than other countries to change the mindset in terms of education and rights awareness, even our neighbours like Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines, their citizens are far ahead.”
Yeni Rosa Damayanti, founder of the Indonesian Mental Health Association, points out that although dismissive attitudes to disability and practices such as shackling do exist in other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines, Indonesia compares badly with the region in terms of social policy.
“Although the perception of people and the stigma is probably not that different, the assistance and support from the government is much greater in other countries,” she said. “In Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, a lot of people receive disability allowances, or prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are covered by medical insurance. In the Philippines, discounts are available for disabled people for food, in Malaysia, public transport is free for disabled people. In Indonesia, you have to pay for your own.”
Asia-Pacific nations have committed to the United Nations Incheon Strategy to advocate for disabled people’s rights by 2022. But due to a lack of education or facilities, people with disabilities in Indonesia also struggle to find jobs, or are employed in low-paid or informal occupations, compared with the general population.
Nonetheless, Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an Indonesian PhD student and journalist who writes on disability issues, said he hoped the legacy of the Games would play “a big role in increasing people’s awareness”. “Indonesia’s success depends not only on how it [organised the Para Games] … even more important is that the Games should leave a legacy,” he said. “We need to be more disabled-friendly after the sports end.”