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Seeing the bigger need

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang  /  Wed, April 5, 2017  /  09:27 am
Seeing the bigger need

Home crowd: The community of blind people in Malang show their support for the city's Arema soccer club. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

Few came alone to the birthday bash.

Pairs seemed mismatched, little kids and older men, mothers and adult daughters, relatives and friends holding hands though not side-by-side. More often one person was being led in front or steered from behind with a shoulder grip.

They shuffled uncertainly into the hall even though the welcomes were genuine, the seats prepared and the chocolate cream cake looked splendidly yummy — all to celebrate the 10th birthday of Pamitra, the association representing blind people in Malang, East Java.

Though lunchboxes were bakery-warm, the invitees carefully sniffed every bananaleaf package. Not for freshness, but identification.

There was an energetic band with boisterous back-up singers; the amplifier man ensured everyone within the radius of 1 kilometer would know a special show was under way for some special people.

“Please don’t treat us as though we are stupid,” former educator Erni Suliati said.

“We may not be able to see like you but that doesn’t mean we’re not capable. We can do more than just manual work.”

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However, there’s a tradition that slots the blind into performing music or becoming a pijat tunanetra (traditional masseur). Only some of them would seek a broader choice.

Suliati, 38, was an elementary school teacher before a brain tumor surgery two years ago went wrong and robbed her of sight.

“I can still care for my two children though I depend on my mother, Mestika, to help me get around,” Suliati said. “I don’t blame anyone for what’s happened. This is a test for me.”

It was the same with other disabled celebrants; whatever misfortune had brought them to this point in life, they faced the future with resignation, frequently saying their blindness came from God, so they could do nothing but accept their fate. It was a response that people who commonly seek someone or something to blame might find difficult to fathom.

Reading the room: Musyarofah (left) and daughter Anis Hidayati attend the 10th anniversary of Pamitra, the association representing blind people in Malang, East Java.(JP/Erlinawati Graham)

With disability-friendly public facilities and access to special training and guide dogs becoming the stuff of fantasy, the blind in Malang receive support from their surroundings.

“There are no guide dogs because Muslims are not allowed to have dogs,” said Puji Rahayu, a volunteer for her blind neighbors. “Some people have canes, but the city’s sidewalks aren’t suitable.”

Smart canes that use sonar to warn of hazards would be ineffective and they’d never stop pinging on the country’s cluttered and dangerous streets. Meanwhile, pedestrian crossing signals that beep to alert the blind are often ignored by motorists. This means the blind can only rely on other people. Rahayu only became aware of the needs of the visually impaired when one of her neighbors turned blind. To offer a helping hand, she started leading him around the neighborhood to shops.

“I’m OK and have a good life and business,” she said. “When I understood the gravity of his situation I thought it was my responsibility to help.” That neighbor is Hendro Setiawan, who is now the head of Pamitra. Hendro’s wife is also blind and their two sighted children are still in school, so for help during special events, he calls on Rahayu.

“As a community, we take care of each other in many ways, though we could do much more with greater government aid and our own meeting place,” Hendro said, adding that the association even organized indoor, five-aside soccer games for the blind using a modified ball that makes a jingling sound.

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Pamitra’s network includes becak (pedicab) drivers who treat its members with extra care and patience, such as Anis Hidayati, 29, who was born blind and later turned deaf.

Anis’s father died when she was 3 years old, so she relies on her resilient mother, Musyarofah. Now aged 60, their positions have reversed and Musyarofah depends on the income her daughter earns as a masseuse, a skill she gained through training provided by the local government. Anis can make up to Rp 30,000 (US$2.25) a day.

To be more independent and communicate with clients, Anis carries a card bearing words written in capital letters that have been pricked out — a homemade version of Braille. Customers asks questions by guiding Anis’ finger across letters to spell out words and sentences.

Her mother has also bought her a wrist watch with raised digits so she can tell time.

Malang’s Social Welfare Department and Tax Office served as principal hosts of Pamitra’s anniversary celebration, backed by several small businesses. Malang Mayor Muhammad Anton had been invited, but failed to attend.

Social Welfare head Pipih Trastuti said her agency was helping about 80 visually impaired people gain various skills through training courses and gatherings like the birthday party.

“People should never underestimate the disabled,” she said. “The blind often have more acute senses; they’re able to smell or hear better than you and I.

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“When you can’t see someone’s face, you have to rely on their voice to assess whether the person is friendly or otherwise. The blind can identify my staff and I through our footsteps.”

Some 1.5 percent of Indonesia’s population suffers from serious sight problems – that’s more than 3 million people. According to the World Health Organization, about half of these people were born blind as a result of a genetic disorder, or lost their sight through accidents and diseases like glaucoma.

The rest are caused by cataracts. The disease can now be treated through a relatively simple surgery, but Pamitra head Hendro said the surgical cost of around Rp 7 million an eye was beyond the financial reach of most guests attending the foundation’s party.

This could be remedied by better work opportunities for the visually impaired and if only society gave them a chance to prove themselves, he added.

“What we want is for society to change its mind-set toward the blind,” he said. “We can be extraordinary if we receive the right support.”