Able to choose
Published: Jul 08, 2014

Thushara Dibley

A voting booth in Aceh, International Foundation for Electoral Systems

Indonesians go to the polls this week to choose between two very different presidential candidates. For most Indonesians, the choice will be easy. For the 11 per cent of undecided voters, it may be more difficult. But for the 10-15 per cent of Indonesians with a disability, just getting to the polling booth may be the challenge. Those who do cast their vote may be unsure about how the two candidates differ because, until recently, their position towards disability was unclear. But disability activists across Indonesia have been working hard to ensure that, regardless of who wins, the needs of their community will be better met.

Making elections accessible

Indonesia has had laws in place that address the issue of disability since the end of the New Order period. But it is only recently has the government taken concrete steps to ensure that elections are accessible. Many of these steps were taken after Indonesia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty which outlines the rights of people with disabilities, in 2011. While the convention is yet to be enacted into legislation, Indonesia’s commitment to it has already brought some significant changes. These include an undertaking by the election commission to ensure that people with disabilities can participate in the political process.

In the 2014 legislative elections, the election commission arranged for braille voting cards to be provided to those who required them, and also arranged training sessions so that people with disabilities could practise using them before election day. The Centre for Integration and Advocacy for People with Disabilities (SIGAP), a disabled persons organisation (DPO) from Yogyakarta,  monitored the effectiveness of these provisions. They found that in some areas polling booths were only accessible by stairs and that the braille forms were not consistently provided. But the fact that such monitoring was undertaken at all, and the fact that it generated public discussion, was a considerable step forward in enabling people with disabilities to exercise their political rights.

Similar steps have been taken to ensure that the presidential election is accessible. In addition to braille voting papers, the election commission has provided simultaneous sign language interpretation on television during each of the presidential debates. On 9 July, the People’s Voter Education Network (JPPR) will be monitoring polling booths to ensure that people with disabilities are able to cast their votes.  

Presidential positions on disability

In contrast to the focus on ensuring people with disabilities can vote, it took both Presidential candidates until quite late in the campaign to directly address this particular constituency. A number of DPOs, particularly those from Solo and Jakarta – cities where Presidential candidate Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, had a track record of implementing policies that benefited people with disabilities –  expressed their support for Jokowi early in the presidential campaign.

But Prabowo Subianto was the first to formally outline his policies to the media. In a statement released on 18 June, deputy chief patron of Gerindra, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, outlined the two concrete actions that Prabowo would take for people with disabilities if he became president. His first commitment was to print money with braille to protect blind people from being cheated. The second was to ensure all public spaces would be accessible on a wheel chair. He also reminded people that Gerindra was one of the parties most supportive of the proposed new disability law, and that it would continue to be supportive of this process. The release of this statement was followed by a number of statements of support for Prabowo from individual DPOs, including the West Java branch of the Indonesian Associate of Women with Disabilities (HWDI) and Komunitas Disabilitas DKI, a group based in Jakarta.

Jokowi’s silence on disability issues for much of the campaign did not reflect the proactive steps that he had taken during his time as mayor of Solo and as governor of Jakarta. In Solo, he established a mechanism by which people with disabilities, as well as other marginalised groups, could come into his office to raise concerns without an appointment. This practice continues until today. He also arranged a special sports event for people with disabilities during his time as mayor. As governor of Jakarta, Jokowi visited popular tourist destinations with a group called Barrier Free Tourism to experience directly the challenges they faced travelling through the city. He also made changes to the building regulations such that new constructions buildings had to be accessible.

Having held leadership roles, Jokowi has also had the opportunity things to disappoint people in the disability movement. He let down a number of DPOs by failing to attend an event on 3 December 2013 for international disability day, for example. There was also a case where his government cut money for respite care centres. He wasn’t directly involved in this decision, but it did affect his reputation amongst those in the disability community.

Prabowo, on the other hand, has not had an opportunity to walk the walk. His campaign has, however, made a positive impression on some groups within the disability movement. Some DPOs have reported that they have found it easier to communicate with and gain access to Prabowo’s campaign team than to Jokowi’s. They cite the seminars about disability held by Edi Prabowo, the operations director of Prabowo’s campaign team, as evidence of Prabowo’s support. However, Prabowo also has used language and proposed ideas that are at odds with the key principles of empowerment and independence held by many within the disability community. For example, his vision and mission statement uses the term cacat (deformed), rather than disabilitas (disability), the term preferred by the DPO community and the term used by Jokowi in his vision and mission statement.

Shaping the campaign

bakerAn accessible election simulation held at the election commission in Jakarta in April 2014, James Baker

According to disability activists in Jakarta, Prabowo’s statement and the subsequent expressions of support for him from members of DPOs from around Indonesia illustrated the need for more coordinated engagement with the two Presidential candidates. This was considered important to avoid the politicisation of disability related issues by either candidate.

A network of DPOs from Jakarta, headed by Yeni Rosa Damayani from the Mental Health Association (PJS), invited the campaign teams of both candidates to a public forum on 25 June attended by more than 120 people. Participants in forum prepared a statement outlining the support they wanted from the Indonesian leadership, which was presented to the representatives of the two candidates. Its key message was that Indonesia must move away from the idea that people with disabilities were a burden on society and that they required charity. Instead, the statement urged, Indonesia should understand that people with disabilities were an asset to the nation and that they should be given opportunities to contribute to political and other decisions that would allow them to become agents of their own development.

The very next day, on 26 June, Jokowi released a statement outlining his position towards the issue of disability in Indonesia. Like Prabowo, he expressed commitment to seeing the new national law for disability through to implementation. But he also went a step further, presenting a five point plan that drew almost word for word on the public statement presented by the DPOs the previous day. Jokowi’s plan outlined the importance of challenging the perceptions that people with disabilities are a burden and described people with disabilities as an ‘asset to the nation’ who should be directly involved in the political process. Then on 5 July, as a further indication of his support for people with disabilities, Jokowi signed nine charters, each committing a government that he leads to a different social group. The eighth charter, the Suharso Charter, addressed the rights of people with disabilities. Again, it drew heavily on the statement released by those who participated in the public dialogue.

Activists in the disability movement were pleased that Jokowi took up their recommendations in his platform. They were also frustrated that it took him such a long time to outline his position with regards to disability, as it divided the movement. These fissures of course reflect deeper structural challenges within the disability movement, such as the structure of DPOs, in which different branches operate quite independently of each other. They also reflect the fact that people with disabilities may not be voting solely on the basis of the candidates’ positions on disability.  

Nevertheless, the ability of the DPOs to mobilise their community, to advocate for their cause and to capture the attention of the campaign teams of both presidential candidates bodes well for people with disabilities, regardless of who becomes the next president of Indonesia.

Thushara Dibley (Thushara.dibley@sydney.edu.au) is the Deputy Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. She researches disability activism and policy in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 117: Jul-Sep 2014