Saturday, December 15, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 15, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

"Discrimination is cruel," recalled Mitra Netra Foundation chairman Bambang Basuki.

Bambang experienced a gradual decline in his vision from his last year of senior high school onward due to glaucoma and the degeneration of the cataract.

He said society treated blind people very differently. He went from being viewed as a promising student to a burden on society.

Bambang had been very good at science and art. He wanted to be an architect.

But his gradual, hurtful blindness appeared to have crushed his hope. He underwent eight operations on his eyes until the nightmare became a reality: complete blindness.

"After completing high school, I confined myself to my house for five years, nervously preparing myself for the worst," Bambang said during a recent interview at his home.

He later met with a blind teacher of special education who had gone through SPG (teacher education high school). Bambang went to see the principal of SPG, hoping to follow the same path.

"But the principal told me that, on the advice of the school's teachers, they were not taking any more blind students. I was shocked," said Bambang, who was born in Medan on April 20, 1950.

Bambang later applied to go to IKIP Jakarta (Jakarta's Teacher College) but was again rejected because he was blind.

It was the prominent educationalist Arief Rachman who stepped in on Bambang's behalf, persuading the IKIP rector to accept him as a student.

Bambang graduated from the IKIP with a high distinction in 1980.

He later wanted to be an English teacher at a state-sanctioned special education school, but was unsure whether he would be allowed to take the selection test for civil servants.

Receiving no response from the selection committee, Bambang finally took the case to a high-ranking official at the Education Ministry, who happily arranged for him to take the test on the very last day.

Bambang, who is now an English teacher at a special school in Cilandak, has since been fighting to advance the rights of the disabled. He became the secretary-general of the Indonesian Association for the Blind (Pertuni).

However, he was not comfortable with the fact that people with disabilities were excluded from policy-making.

"We were treated as people who needed assistance, not as people who could make contributions to society," he said.

So he and his associates established the Mitra Netra Foundation in 1991, which aims to assist the blind through education programs.

The foundation has been producing audio books for the blind since 1992. With the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), it distributes 100 cassettes per month to 15 special schools. And almost every year, the visually impaired individuals who visit the center listen to nearly 12,000 audio cassettes.

"But now we also produce digital talking books, which are cheap and efficient as users can navigate into sub-chapters and pages at ease," said Bambang, who is married to Husna and has three children.

The foundation offers a range of services, from orientation and mobility training for the blind to counseling. It also provides visually impaired students with companions to help with writing assignments and test taking.

Students are offered after-school tutoring and computer classes where they learn basic skills like typing. Every year the foundation trains approximately 60 people in computer skills.

Bambang said he had tried to increase society's awareness through regular campaigns in the form of special programs, exhibitions and seminars.

Last year, for example, 100 of 300 visually impaired individuals demonstrated their computer skills including the sophisticated operation of Microsoft Word and Excel for typing and accounting purposes. Bambang said the foundation had launched a program called Thousands of Books for the Blind.

The program brings together 300 volunteers to retype the books to convert them into digital Braille using another foundation's product called the Mitra Netra Braille Converter (MBC). And as many as 13 publishers have agreed to give the foundation the electronic version of the books they conventionally print and sell in the market.

"Each year, we produce 125 titles of Braille-based books and the same number for digital talking books," Bambang said.

Organized by the E-Braille Indonesian Community (KEBI), the data base can also be accessed on line by the blind, who must use special screen reader software called JAWS (Job Access with Speech).

"Unfortunately we are still unable to produce our own screen reader software," Bambang said, adding that he would invite ICT experts and donors to help develop the Indonesian version of screen reader software.

"Alternatively, we should buy the JAWS, which is expensive -- Rp 12 million per package, to be installed in any internet caf‚ with a blind population," said Bambang, who has presented papers here and abroad on issues related to people with disabilities.

He said disabled people could only realize their full potential if they lived in an inclusive, barrier-free society.

"But society will never be inclusive of disabled people if they are not accepted at regular schools," said Bambang, who arranged a demonstration of the computer skills of some of his colleagues during the celebration of the International Day for People with Disabilities at the Presidential Palace on Dec. 6.

He said he was appreciative of the fact the Education Ministry had made it mandatory for schools to accept children with disabilities. However, he said many regular schools lacked the resources to hire special education teachers.

He said the Cilandak public school for students with disabilities and his foundation, as a resource center, were ready to help regular schools through the provision of special education teachers and learning materials.

Bambang is glad attitudes toward people with disabilities have become more accepting, however he feels the word "disabled" is used as a label or a stereotype.

"I prefer to call people like us 'people with special challenges'," he said.

For more information about the Mitra Netra Foundation go to

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