March 13, 2018 / 2:00 AM / 5 days ago

FEATURE-Dentist drills through stigma holding back Indonesia's disabled

MEDAN, Indonesia, March 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - T en years ago, at the dental clinic Annita Foe runs in the Indonesian city of Medan, she watched a homeless, wheelchair-bound patient struggle to hoist herself into the chair.

After giving a free check-up, the dentist asked what else she could do to help the woman, crippled by polio as a child.

That simple question launched Foe on a personal mission to support people with disabilities and transform attitudes.

“I was shocked - I had never seen anyone like that before,” said Foe, 53, who is vice president of Yayasan Surya Kebenaran International, a foundation that runs health clinics and provides other basic services for North Sumatra’s poor.

“She said, ‘If you want to help, help my friends who don’t have legs’,” Foe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since then, Foe has mobilised funding and expertise to provide some 8,000 prosthetic limbs to hundreds of people disabled by birth defects, disease or accidents across the country.

She arranges visits by German and Dutch surgeons once a year who perform operations and help people in need of prosthetic limbs. She also organises free healthcare, food aid and job training, and puts on social events that bring together people with disabilities in Medan.

There are about 10 million people in Indonesia with some form of disability, according to a 2017 report by Australia’s Monash University. Many are still struggling to be accepted by a society that has largely failed to provide services and assistive devices to make life easier for the disabled.

While attitudes vary across the archipelago, having a disabled child often brings shame and stigma, with some communities blaming a curse or bad luck due to past behaviour.

That can deter the parents of disabled children from registering the birth, said Irwanto, head of the psychology department at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta who goes by one name only.

Some parents hide disabled children away in cramped rooms at home, while others are entrusted to orphanages or under-funded state-run institutions.

With little in the way of community-based support, government rehabilitation centres for the disabled and mentally ill often suffer from overcrowding and undignified conditions.

Patients are sometimes even beaten and kept in chains or stocks with no treatment or support, despite this being banned, several disability experts said.

Without a birth certificate or identity card, many disabled Indonesians cannot access public services like education and healthcare, and often fall into extreme poverty as adults.

“I felt huge embarrassment, especially because of the way people looked at me,” said David Sitorus, 43, who lost a leg in 1994 while working as a contractor for an electricity company. “It was difficult for me to adjust and earn a living.”

Sitorus, who had a prosthetic leg fitted in 2009 with financial help from Foe’s foundation, now drives a modified becak, a type of rickshaw, to earn money to support his wife and two daughters in Medan.

“It was a happy and proud moment when I got my prosthetic leg,” he said. “My self-confidence came back.”


Indonesian attitudes to people with disabilities have slowly evolved over the past decade, said Thushara Dibley, deputy director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, who has researched the disability movement in Indonesia.

In keeping with a global shift, Indonesians are now less likely to see disability as a problem to be overcome with medical treatment or charity, but as a condition with implications for social issues and rights, said Dibley, who has also run training for Indonesian disability activists.

“Although the situation for people with disabilities is far from ideal and there are still significant challenges ... the changes that have happened and the work done by advocates over the last decade is pretty phenomenal,” she said.

As part of this process, Indonesia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011. A new national disability law that revamped existing legislation was passed in 2016 with input from many activists.

The law ensures that the needs of the disabled are taken into account in all decisions made by government departments.

It is now also mandatory for government institutions to have people with disabilities make up about 3 percent of their staff, said disability researcher Irwanto, who was left wheelchair-bound after a medical accident in 2003.

Eva Kasim, a senior policy analyst at Indonesia’s Ministry of Social Affairs, said implementation of the 2016 law was an “ongoing process” and would take time.

The new terminology it employs will help shift attitudes and improve rights for the disabled, she said.

The ministry has helped establish an association for parents of children with disabilities so they can share knowledge and experiences.

Meanwhile, a rapid response unit set up by the ministry is working with police and local authorities to stop mistreatment at state-run institutions, Kasim said.


Maintaining the involvement of disability advocates in policymaking at all levels is crucial, activists said.

Many Indonesian towns and cities suffer from crumbling, under-funded infrastructure and transport networks, so introducing disabled access is a huge challenge.

Where wheelchair ramps and elevators have been put in, they must be kept in good order, Dibley said. Wide pavements that are wheelchair-friendly and tactile paving for the visually impaired must not be taken over by street vendors, she added.

Activists also called for more funds to be allocated to education, which would allow more children with disabilities to enroll at local schools, breaking down stereotypes.

Back in Medan, Foe fondly remembers a wedding she helped organise three years ago for a man who lost a leg in a work accident and his bride, unable to use both legs due to polio. More than 200 guests attended, including many with disabilities.

"Many people feel that disabled people are useless and cannot get married, but I felt proud and glad to see them being accepted by society," said Foe. (Reporting by Michael Taylor, editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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