Empowering People with Disabilities to Empower One Another

Robert Mirsel, SVD

Just as in many other countries, people with disabilities in Sikka Regency of Flores, Indonesia, are undocumented. They are not counted as much, do not have Social Security, and are generally illiterate. People with disabilities are marginalized, discriminated against, and even prone to violence and sexual abuse in some cases. They are also maltreated by parents or family members and excluded from development processes. As a result, people with disabilities become the poorest of the poor.

Mary Jano is a widow and mother of three. Because of an accident, she could not move well and became a disabled person. But she also became a central figure in her community, in which she came to play a critical role as an initiator, motivator, and educator. Despite difficulties in mobility, she tried to reach out to those people and help them to know where they stand.

Strategies of Empowerment

Supported by Fr. Robert Mirsel and the seminarian students from the Theological Institute of St. Paul Ledalero, Mary Jano and her team acquired some strategies in order to empower people living with disabilities. First of all, they identified people with disabilities in Sikka Regency. They live mostly in hidden areas because their families are ashamed of them. They are socially and culturally excluded from others. The team tried to reach out to these people from home to home, from one village to another. Then, they collected data and information about them and tried to communicate with each of them personally.

Based on the collected data and information, they decided to form a group of people with disabilities. On December 13, 2020, as the pandemic broke out, Mary Jano and her team created the group called “Disabled Community of “Sinar Mulia.” Sinar Mulia means the Light of Hope. In the group, members can share their experiences and struggles and discuss some activities they can do together while organizing themselves.

Furthermore, supported by religious communities and local NGOs, people with disabilities are able to bring their concerns and struggles to the center of public attention and to the consideration of the local government. They are able to meet the representative of the local authorities of Sikka Regency and speak up about their needs, hopes, and dreams.

Promoting education is another strategy to empower people with disabilities. We know that 95 % of people with disabilities in the Sikka Regency are illiterate. They need at least basic education. Therefore, the Sinar Mulia Disabled Community has formed a study group and offered some literacy programs in reading and counting – so that they have access to basic education and literacy.

Home Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic isolated people from one another and limited people’s mobility in doing their business—the situation challenged people to be more creative in doing jobs. Since the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Sinar Mulia Disabled community has created simple jobs they can do that gain money and generate income. They produced Lele Luk, maize powder. The supported group promoted their products to the local government and distributed them among people with diabetes. They also made and sold bamboo sticks to local restaurants and satay food businesses. Small business helps them gain money for their family and support their community.

Besides that, they practiced small-scale farming, growing vegetables on a very small piece of land to meet their daily needs.

Challenges and Opportunities

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people found it difficult to keep their jobs. The situation was even more challenging for people living with disabilities. The pandemic limited their effort to reach out to other people with disabilities.

Lack of financial support is another challenge to increasing small home businesses such as maize powder products, which are a source of livelihood for the disabled. The disabled community needs more financial support from the local government, finance institutions, or donor agencies. Furthermore, people with disabilities vary in nature. It is hard to include and mobilize all of them in the programs for empowerment with limited facilities, means, and staff members.

The good news is that the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs has acknowledged the Disabled Community of Sinar Mulia. Some community members participated in the training programs and workshops conducted by the Social Affairs Ministry. Now, they have expanded their group to another place.

To conclude, the Disabled community recommends that the local and national governments in Indonesia ensure all people with disabilities achieve basic and further education and have access to quality education. The government must cover their health and life insurance and give them access to decent jobs so that the gaps of socio-economic inequalities between people with disabilities and the rest of society can be narrowed.

Learning from my own country, Indonesia, I know not all people with disabilities are counted. Therefore, we recommend that the UN member states collect real data on people with disabilities to inform relevant policies.