Development, Social policy | Southeast Asia

23 June 2022

While structural inequality continues to create discrimination against people with disabilities in Indonesia, a shift to a human-rights based approach is a chance to bridge the gap, Dian Maya Safitri writes.

As they do across the world, people with disability in Indonesia face structural barriers that exacerbate the effects of social and economic inequality.

Making up approximately ten per cent of the population, people with disability in Indonesia have less access to education, healthcare services, and economic opportunities, making them more vulnerable to poverty. Women with disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to multidimensional poverty and physical and sexual violence.

The pandemic amplified these inequalities with social and economic gaps widening and people with disability being at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. A recent report found that early in the pandemic, 81 per cent of workers with disabilities reported experiencing reduced income and 68 per cent claimed to have stopped working, compared to 55 per cent of those without disabilities.

An International Labour Organization report estimated that disabled workers account for 42 per cent of overall declining income caused by the pandemic, despite making up only 18 per cent of the national labour force.

To address this, the government designed and implemented social protection programs targeted specifically at people with disability. Programs such as Program Keluarga Harapan Disabilitas or Family Hope Program for Persons with Disability, also known as a conditional cash transfer program, provide a measure of support for Indonesians with disability.

Although this social assistance has successfully improved consumption for households that can access it by 4.8 per cent, disability activists have called on the government to shift their focus, from perceiving citizens with disability as objects of charity to treating them as an empowered community worthy of rights.

More on this: The multidimensional poverty of women with disabilities

For instance, Chair of the influential Association of Persons with Disabilities in Situbondo or the Situbondo Disability Care Pioneers (PPDiS) in East Java, and a woman with physical disability, Luluk Ariyantiny, has explicitly called for the government to engage with people with disabilities as active citizens in every development policy process.

The PPDiS calls for a human rights-based approach to the issue, which would ensure that people with disabilities can actively participate in the decision-making process and exercise their rights, rather than being passive recipients of assistance.

Activist work in Olean village in East Java demonstrates the strength of this approach, where a village-level regulation concerning inclusive healthcare services for women with disabilities has been issued.

There are three ways Indonesia can take the strengths of this approach nation-wide.

First, the newly-established National Disability Commission must become a disability knowledge hub, and bridge the experiences of policymakers, academics, politicians, and disability organisations. The Commission should also handle complaints for people with disabilities regarding government policies by linking them to SP4N LAPOR! – the government’s official complaint handling system. This would also involve making the SP4N LAPOR! website and apps sufficiently accessible for use by disabled communities.

More on this: Podcast: A precarious position – Indonesia’s workers in the pandemic

Second, local authorities should scale the establishment of disability working groups to the village level and monitor active participation of people with disabilities during planning and budgeting processes, to build on what PPDiS and other activist groups have achieved.

Third, the government must work with journalists and the media need so they can use standardised terminology and build a national narrative of progress.

Appropriate choice of words is one thing, but sharing stories of success and participation, like people with disability succeeding against the odds in education, politics, health, entrepreneurship, or the private sector, has the power to shift public perspective to being more respectful and inclusive of people with disabilities. Empowering narratives surrounding disability will lay the foundation for trust towards disabled citizens.

Trust and solidarity will fuel a more inclusive economic and political order and unlock social mobility, influencing people with disability’s place in society. Whether it be an employer’s decisions to provide a more accessible work environment, a job applicant being provided a fairer recruitment process, or a politician with a disability receiving more balanced coverage, more inclusive media narratives are crucial.

Rising inequality among people with disabilities isn’t just a social problem either – it harms economic growth and erodes the backbone of a fair economy, as well as society.

If it hopes to make progress on this and unlock the potential of its citizens with disability, the Indonesian Government must listen to disability experts and do more than handing out assistance here and there. It must focus on championing a human rights-driven approach to this issue and understand the centrality of people with disability to its development future.

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