The Jakarta Post
“Sir/Ma’am, I’m deaf. I cannot read your lips because you’re wearing a mask. I’m here to withdraw my money. Please write down what I need to do. Thank you.”
Widi Utami, 28, handed this handwritten note to a security guard when she arrived at a bank in Semarang, Central Java, on June 4. While she can usually read lips, with all the security guards and tellers covering their mouth with masks, she relies on notes.
The security guard, Kurniawan, promptly nodded and wrote below the note, “How much do you want to withdraw?”
Kurniawan accompanied Widi to the teller and stayed with her until she had finished taking her money, making sure she could communicate properly with the teller using handwritten notes.
Widi shared her story on her twitter account @MustikaUngu expressing gratitude to Kurniawan for being so helpful. Her post went viral, with other deaf people sharing accounts of their experiences accessing public services during the “new normal”.
“That was my first time going to a public place since the pandemic began,” Widi told The Jakarta Post on Monday via text message, “since the government introduced the policy for everyone to wear mask, I feel so hopeless and anxious going out in public. Whenever I see a group of people wearing masks, I feel scared because I know I can’t communicate with them.”
Widi, who runs an online grocery shopping business from home, said she used to find it easy to go out, but that now she was afraid to go anywhere.
“I have used notes like that before, but not everyone is willing to help me,” Widi said.
People with disabilities have long fought a battle to demand their basic rights. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities were marginalized and not provided equal access to public services and information. And now, as the nation forges the COVID-19 “new normal”, they face even greater challenges to live ordinary lives and access public services.
In March, a group of deaf people sent an open letter to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, calling on him to uphold the rights of people with hearing impairments to have access to all COVID-19 information.
Bagja Prawira, one of the activists who wrote the letter, said that with little to no access to information, many deaf people he knew had continued to live their lives as normal, without fully understanding the dangers of the pandemic.
“We are facing a disaster and we have the right to access all information about it,” Bagja told the Post on Tuesday via a video call with the help of an interpreter.
He called on the government to follow Law No.8/2016 on people with disabilities, which requires authorities to provide access to public services, information and protection during disasters.
Deaf people, Bagja said, communicated by writing, reading people’s lips and using sign language. While transparent masks could help some read lips, not all deaf people had this ability, Bagja said.
As such, sign language is a vital communication tool. However, not all television stations provide sign language interpreters to help those who cannot hear. Bagja said the deaf community lacked access to information because of persistent stigma and a lack awareness about the importance of sign language.
“There are only 50 professional sign language interpreters in Indonesia,” he said.
Widi Utami, 28, who has a hearing impairment, handed this handwritten note to a security guard when she arrived at a bank in Semarang, Central Java, on June 4. While she can usually read lips, with all the security guards and tellers covering their mouth with masks, she relies on notes. (Widi Utami/Widi Utami)
According to 2019 National Social and Economic Survey (Susenas) data, there are 25.6 million people with disabilities in Indonesia, equal to almost 10 percent of the population.
A recent survey from the Indonesia Disability Network (JDI) showed that only around 60 percent of people with disabilities had adequate access to information about COVID-19 and how to avoid infection.
The online survey was conducted from April 10 to 24 by JDI and involved 1,683 respondents with disabilities from 32 provinces. According to the survey, 86 percent of respondents who work in the informal sector had seen their incomes drop 50 to 80 percent because of the economic impacts of the outbreak.
“Social safety net programs have reached less than 15 percent of the respondents,” Juni Yulianto, a researcher at JDI, said on Thursday during an online webinar on the challenges faced by people with disabilities during the outbreak.
The COVID-19 outbreak has also affected people with disabilities who require medical treatment, as they have avoided going to hospital over fears of exposure to the virus.
“Some have discontinued their treatment. People with cerebral palsy, for example, require routine physical therapy. If it is postponed for a month, it will significantly impact their condition. They might require home visits for the therapy sessions,” Juni added.
The National Development Planning Agency’s (Bappenas) director for poverty reduction and social welfare, Maliki, who also gave a presentation during the webinar, said people with disabilities were the most vulnerable group during the transition to new normal.
Maliki said citizenship status was vital for people with disabilities to gain access to their rights, but the reality was that 116,000 children with disabilities do not have birth certificates.
“The pandemic will increase the number of poor and vulnerable people, and people with disabilities are especially at risk,” Maliki added.
Maliki said Bappenas was currently working to reregister people with disabilities with the help of the Social Ministry and local governments.
“That way we can get their names and addresses. We will provide social aid until December. Communities and organizations can help us by notifying us of people with disabilities in their community who need social assistance,” he said.
Juni of JDI said that COVID-19 had showed how the government lacked sufficient data to assist the most vulnerable groups during disaster.
“This is our time to fix that,” he said.