Sunday, December 23, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 24, 2007


Mitra Netra Foundation director Bambang Basuki demonstrated the computer skills of his visually impaired colleagues at an event at the Presidential Palace on Dec. 6, marking the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. The foundation is an NGO that aims to provide services to people with visual impairment through educational programs. It also is a resource center for regular schools with inclusive education. Bambang, who is also visually impaired, met with The Jakarta Post contributor Alpha Amirrachman to talk about the current state's policies for people with disabilities, and inclusive education which he said could enable them to enjoy equal participation in society.

Question: How would you describe the present government's handling of people with disabilities?

Answer: In the past I faced difficulties when I applied for work as a teacher, due to explicit discriminatory regulations that stipulated that teachers must not have disabilities.

In the education sector students with disabilities have been segregated into exclusive schools, which were only available in selected locations, but I think the situation has been gradually improving.

This can be seen, for example, in the 1997 law for people with disabilities and the 2003 national education law.

The regulation for disabled people stipulates that every companies' workforce must comprise at least 1 percent persons with disabilities.

The education law states that people with mental and physical disabilities are entitled to special education, but "special education" can still be interpreted as a segregated education (only for students with disabilities), which effectively separates them from the rest of society.

Under the 2005 regulation on national education standards, however, the government stated the need for specialized teachers in inclusive education, to further integrate disabled persons into the education system. It states that every school with an inclusive education program should have specialized teachers with required competence to handle students with disabilities.

Also the decree made by the director general of elementary and secondary education at the National Education Ministry urged schools to provide inclusive education programs where disabled students require them.

How is all this translated into practice?

The 1 percent quota of staff dedicated for people with disabilities has yet to be completely put into practice.

There are also inadequate resources for schools to effectively adopt the inclusive education policies. Schools still think it would burden them to provide special facilities for students with disabilities.

I believe local administrations should allocate a special budget for schools with an inclusive education policy.

When I was invited to give advice on the formulation of Jakarta's gubernatorial regulation on inclusive education, I managed to insert a clause that schools with inclusive education programs should receive "guidance" from local authorities -- this should also be interpreted as financial assistance, and I hope that all local administrations throughout the country would follow suit.

But there have also been positive signs, with the Education Ministry now providing a grant to the Mitra Netra Foundation, which has provides resources for people with disabilities.

Regular schools can ask for the provision of special teachers and learning resources from us, or from special schools for students with disabilities.

Why do you think inclusive education is better for people with disabilities? Don't these people need special and different treatment?

I'm not saying special schools are unnecessary. Segregated education is still important for certain people who require special treatment, but many students with disabilities are also capable and can learn alongside students at conventional schools and should be socializing with other members of society.

Students can learn to interact with each other and respect their differences from an early age.

I think this could be a key to make our society adopt a more democratic outlook. It is unfortunate that there are still those who believe people with disabilities cannot be productive, which is basically discrimination -- This is a serious threat to inclusive education.

Because of this, we need clear, consistent policies and regulations.

What needs to be improved in inclusive education is: to increase the number and equal distribution of quality resource centers across the country; the provision of a clear status for special education teachers and their chosen career path; designing an effective evaluation system; the provision of an operational budget for resource centers and campaigns; and dissemination of information on policies for regular schools in remote areas, with involvement from local authorities which can accomodate the specific needs of each region.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in dealing with the issue?

I think the biggest challenge is to shift the paradigm within our society that discriminates against people with disabilities, seeing them only as a burden.

We also need to change our perception such that people like us aren't just seen as persons who need special treatment and charity, but as people who can contribute to the betterment of society.

In the past, because of discrimination and prejudice we were never asked to get involved in policy making.

Since this paradigm is difficult to dislodge, we are often forced to make compromises. We have struggled to influence policy makers but what we may perceive as ideal is often hard for others to accept, for a number of reasons, including that we are a poor country and there are many other areas which need immediate attention.

The government has definitely started to include us in its policies, and have increasingly shown to understand that we know exactly what we need.

The recent visit made by Bank Indonesia personnel to Mitra Netra for advice on the production of bills especially designed for people with visual impairment is a good example. Although its results were not entirely satisfactory, because we were not consulted from the outset, it is still an indication of a positive change.

How do you think information and communications technology (ICT) can help to empower people with disabilities?

The development of ICT has been amazing and has enabled people, particularly those with disabilities, to learn new skills.

ICT has proven to be a very useful tool to enhance skills and knowledge, but we need to catch up with developments in this field, otherwise we will be left behind.

Mitra Netra Foundation has produced special software called the Mitra Netra Braille Converter (MBC), the Mitra Netra Electronic Dictionary (MELDICT) and Tactile Graphic Software.

We also produce digital talking books which are cheap and efficient -- users can easily navigate to pages or chapters.

Each year we publish 125 different Braille-based titles and the same number of digital talking books.

Managed by the Indonesian E-Braille Community (KEBI), the database can also be accessed online by the blind, who use special screen reader software.

The screen readers and Braille display software must be imported and are therefore expensive. As yet we have been unable to produce an Indonesian version ... so we would like to see experts help us invent them.

There are also other obstacles; the high cost of Internet connections, the lack of Internet access in many schools and limited supporting government regulations.

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