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Annisa Rahmania: Opens people'€™s eyes

  • Ati Kisjanto

    The Jakarta Post

London | Thu, December 12, 2013 | 12:37 pm
Annisa Rahmania: Opens people'€™s eyes (JP/Ati Kisjanto) (JP/Ati Kisjanto)

(JP/Ati Kisjanto)

Annisa Rahmania was understandably a bit nervous. She was one of the four keynote speakers at a seminar at the Houses of Parliament in London to mark International Disability Day on Dec. 3. The seminar was packed with senior policy makers, the Indonesian ambassador, British members of parliament (MPs) and a government minister.  

Greeting her 60-strong audience, Annisa'€™s hands whirled as she communicated in sign language; her expression changing with each of her swift hand movements. Standing facing her, Santi Sugiarto simultaneously interpreted Annisa'€™s '€œspeech'€.  

Annisa, a university student majoring in visual communication design and a campaigner for Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD) Young Voices for Indonesia, was born deaf. After finishing a special needs elementary school in Jakarta three years faster than the usual eight years, she joined a mainstream secondary school, only to find that she was constantly bullied by the other students.

'€œI did not understand why I was always being picked on, later on I understood that they were jealous because I was smarter than they were,'€ Annisa said. Her remarks drew a smile from Sir Malcolm Bruce, a British MP with a child who has a hearing disability.

Progressing to university was another struggle. '€œTrisakti University didn'€™t encourage me to enroll, giving the excuse that they didn'€™t have special facilities for hard-of-hearing students,'€ she recalled. '€œBut I insisted and managed to persuade them that I would be able to follow the lectures as long as I was given the chance.'€ They were persuaded and Annisa was able to keep up with the others by asking for hard copies of lectures and lessons.

She was introduced by another hard-of-hearing friend to LCD, a vocational training center for the physically disabled which runs the Young Voices program for disabled people aged 16-25. Ever since, she has been an avid campaigner for disabled rights: breaking down barriers and opening doors to help Indonesia'€™s 20 million disabled people secure a better future and a more inclusive role in society.

With a back pack, trendy white eye liner, bushy eyebrows and a head scarf, the petite 20-year-old from South Jakarta looked like a teenager as she took to the stage in London. But after finishing her speech on the long journey ahead for the disabled in Indonesia, she came across the mature adult she is. She had captivated the whole room with her message and presence.

'€œPlease include us, the disabled in the process of creating, monitoring and implementing policies that affect our lives, and realize that a person with disabilities has as many human rights as other people,'€ she pleaded as she called upon world leaders to leave no one behind.

As many people came to talk, shake hands and congratulate her on her speech as with another of the keynote speakers, Ade Adepitan, a charming Nigerian-born British paralympic basketball gold medalist and TV presenter.

Ade referred to Annisa'€™s speech. '€œAs the disabled are still marginalized in most countries, I feel very fortunate to live in a country that gave me the opportunity to follow my dream to be an Olympian,'€ he said. '€œAs a child watching my first Olympics on TV, I was fascinated by the games and glued to the screen. I pretended to run on the sofa like an athlete. By the time the athletes reached the 800-meter finish line, I was exhausted.'€

Ade was struck down by polio when he was a 15-month-old baby '€œMy mother decided to move to the UK and left the other members of the family, so I could have the chance to be treated equally like other children,'€ he said.

As in Indonesia, disabled children in Nigeria'€™s capital Lagos are mocked, discriminated against and not provided with basic access to facilities.

Annisa has not stopped dreaming. '€œI would like to get a scholarship to study design abroad,'€ she said. '€œBut I'€™m also interested in psychology. Another dream is that sign language will be legalized in Indonesia'€

The issue is under debate in Indonesia, where the authorities believe that deaf people should only communicate by lip reading. '€œThis debate is narrow-minded and limits our ability to communicate and keep up with world developments,'€ Annisa said.

The day after her talk at the House of Commons, she was invited to a forum for deaf people.

It took a three-step process for her to communicate with the other participants: one interpreter '€œtranslated'€ lip reading into a local sign language and then another '€œtranslated'€ it again into an international sign language.

'€œWe could communicate with each other so much more easily if we were allowed to choose what we would like to learn,'€ Annisa said. Santi added: '€œI guess it'€™s just like those who are free to learn to read and speak English, Mandarin or Arabic. The more languages you understand, the more chances you have to educate yourself.'€

The UK delegates were surprised to hear about the situation in Indonesia, saying it was like Britain until 20 years ago. On their UK trip, Santi connected Anissa with people who cannot lip read or understand sign language. But in everyday life, Anissa does not have the luxury of an interpreter, she tries to lip read or uses a mobile phone as her notepad for people to read what she says.

Annisa'€™s other dream is for society to treat the disabled as normal people. '€œSome parents perceive disability as a curse for some previous wrongdoing,'€ said Petty Elliott, president of Wisma Cheshire '€” the Indonesian branch of LCD. '€œDisability is still widely perceived as negative, useless and linked to sickness in Indonesia. Lion Air even asks for a medical clearance letter guaranteeing that our members don'€™t have contagious diseases before they can board their planes.'€

Hamzah Thayeb, the Indonesian ambassador to the UK, commented: '€œIt takes a change of mindset. We need to provide facilities for the disabled in order for them to do activities that most people take for granted, such as the legalization of sign language as a communication medium, ramps to help those in wheelchairs, public transportation facilities. This is not only Annisa'€™s personal struggle. It'€™s our collective challenge'€

Annissa finds pleasure in reading, and relates well to Tetsuko Kuronayagi'€™s Totto-chan character, a Japanese happy-go-lucky girl whose mother tried in vain to look for a school to take her exceptionally
curious daughter.

Annissa was raised by her mother, who was born deaf as a result of her mother contracting German measles when she was pregnant, and her father, who became deaf at the age of five after suffering a high fever.

'€œMy parents taught me to be independent and to be responsible for my own decisions, but I learned many things from my nanny, including how to interact with normal kids.

'€œI'€™m also a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi,'€ added Annisa. '€œEven though he was smart and world renowned, he was humble.'€

As disability rights campaigner Helen Keller said: '€œThe best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.'€ Nobody agrees more than LCD'€™s international policy and campaigns manager, Mahesh Chandrasekar. '€œAnnisa speaks from her heart, that'€™s why she was chosen to represent LCD at the House of Commons.'€

When asked if she had any regrets, Annisa said: '€œI enjoy life. Sometimes I wonder why it is so easy for me to understand lessons much more quickly than other students. I'€™m very blessed.'€