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Keeping promises

Published: Jan 27, 2016

 Thushara Dibley

In the lead up to the July 2014 presidential elections, both candidates made a commitment to upholding the rights of people with disabilities. For his part, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, pledged to challenge negative perceptions of disability in Indonesia. One of the key changes he promised to make was to implement a new national law for disability, which remains on the agenda. In the meantime, he committed to establishing a factory to employ people with disabilities and launched a series of accessible automatic teller machines (ATMs).

These headline-grabbing initiatives tell us that the Jokowi government is keen to be seen as supportive of the rights of people with disabilities.  Unlike some other human rights issues, disability rights are politically uncontroversial. However, the structural changes needed to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to education, work and health care are complex. So far, the Jokowi government has avoided tackling these more complicated elements of reform, but pressure from activists has meant that the president has not been able to shirk his commitment to change the national disability law. 

A symbolic commitment

On 3 December 2015 – the International Day for People with a Disability – a large function was held in the Presidential Palace. In attendance were the president, his wife and a number of ministers including the Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, Puan Maharani and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi. Media reports of the event focus on how moved the president and his ministers were by songs sung by a young girl who was deaf and a young man who was blind. The president’s speech after the performance compared the singers to Judika and Ruth Sahanaya, two famous Indonesian performers. Jokowi also underscored the important contribution that people with disability make to society and reiterated his commitment to upholding the rights of people with disabilities, before officially launching Indonesia’s first accessible ATMs.  One was on show, and a number of guests with disabilities had the opportunity to be among the first to use it. 

This event demonstrated Jokowi’s commitment to disability rights after becoming president. But it was also almost the only initiative undertaken during his first year of office, suggesting that disability rights sits low on his lists of priorities. In June 2015, Minister of Social Affairs, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, promised to open a special factory staffed entirely by people with disabilities. But the factory has yet to be built. Jokowi’s administration also distributed a number of social assistance cards for people with disabilities, though this was a modification in the way in which assistance is distributed, rather than a new initiative.  In fact, the one area where the government has been under pressure not to drop the ball is in regard to implementing the new national disability law. 

Keeping the pressure on

The law that currently governs the Indonesian government’s approach to disability is Law No.4/1997, which situates people with disabilities as helpless and requiring charitable assistance. Since 2011, disability activists have been working on changing the law to better reflect contemporary understandings of people with disabilities as being able to contribute to and participate in society. 

Prior to the 2014 election, activists worked hard to finalise a draft law so that it could be considered by parliament before the change of government. They missed this deadline, but had the draft law ready by the end of that year. Having kept the pressure on the government, the draft law was identified as one of 37 draft laws to be considered by the National Legislation Program between 2015 and 2019. But before it could be officially proposed for consideration, the law needed to be discussed by the People's Representative Council, which in turn required all parties to document and discuss their concerns with the law. 

By August 2015 disability rights activists had grown frustrated at the slow pace of the process. A petition was signed by 9100 people requesting that the draft law be pushed to the next stage. A large-scale protest was organised by a coalition of disability activists on 18 August 2015, when the petition was taken to the Presidential Palace. These activists were joined by other NGOs and community groups that supported their campaign. The protest, which took the form of a carnival, attracted a lot of media attention. On 20 October 2015, about two months after the protest, the People's Representative Council officially proposed the draft law for consideration. This action was welcomed by activists, who are now waiting for the draft law to be passed and implemented.

Holding their leaders accountable

One of the people who attended the 2015 International Day of People with Disabilities event at the Presidential Palace was Gufroni Sakaril, the president of the Indonesian Association of People with Disabilities (Persatuan Penyandang Disabilitas Indonesia, PPDI). When journalists interviewed him at the event, he acknowledged Jokowi’s commitment to issues of disability and expressed thanks for his pledge to provide jobs for people with disabilities. But he also reminded the president that they were waiting eagerly for the passing of the law, explaining the importance of acknowledging the ability of people with disabilities to society.

The gentle reminder not to lose momentum on disability rights reflects the broader role that disability activists have played in keeping Jokowi accountable to his pre-election promises. While the Jokowi administration has not put up obstacles to the demands of disability rights activists, it has focused more on media-friendly initiatives than on deep structural changes. In response, disability rights activists have maintained a clear and united focus on ensuring the national disability law is passed. They may not yet have succeeded, but this approach has ensured slow and steady progress on this front. 

Thushara Dibley ( is the Deputy Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. She researches the disability rights movement in Indonesia. 

Inside Indonesia 123: Jan-Mar 2016


#1 Duncan Graham 2016-02-27 09:51
While supporting the initiative I doubt that a 'gentle reminder' is likely to be effective. It took the DPR five years to pass mental health laws. In its first year this new House passed only three bills. I would have thought the disabled - or 'differently abled' - the term used by Brawijaya University activist Slamet Thohari - deserve better. They have waited far too long to be properly recognised and treated like citizens with equal rights. Dr Dibley and her colleagues might consider a tougher line if real change is to result anytime soon.

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