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Getting around Indonesia as a pedestrian is an arduous task. A daily obstacle course ensues the moment you step out your front door: there are the random poles and bollards on the footpaths, street sellers and motorbike taxi drivers take up precious walking space, and there are often more holes than actual pavement. And that’s if you even have footpaths—in many cities, even in central parts of the capital city of Jakarta, sidewalks are non-existent, with pedestrians forced to weave around parked vehicles and other obstacles.

It becomes even more difficult if one has a disability; the mobility challenge can sometimes be insurmountable. Footpaths rarely slope down to the road, and when they do, barriers are placed across entry points to keep motorcycles out, simultaneously rendering pavements inaccessible to wheelchair users. The yellow tactile paving meant for visually-impaired people is often poorly-placed, seemingly there for decoration more than assistance—stories of yellow paths disappearing into rivers and roads, or leading users into lamp-posts and trees, are common.

This doesn’t just affect the mobility of people with disabilities; it also affects their independence. With such barriers to leaving the house and getting around, people with disabilities are disadvantaged in a vast range of daily activities.

According to the Central Statistics Board, around 12% of Indonesia’s population has a moderate or severe disability (link in Bahasa Indonesia)—45% of this number never graduated primary school, a sharp contrast to the 13% non-graduation rate for able-bodied Indonesians. (A moderate disability means that the individual requires some assistance, while someone with a severe disability needs constant assistance.)

This disadvantage gets compounded as lower levels of education lead to lower rates of employment. In 2016, the University of Indonesia found that only 51% of people with disabilities are employed (link in Bahasa Indonesia), compared to 70% of able-bodied citizens. Only 20% of those with severe disabilities are currently working. The vast majority of people with disabilities in Indonesia work in the informal sector—working in a neighbourhood eatery or laundrette, for example, or selling mobile phone credit from a kiosk in front of their house—leaving them less financially stable with less legal protection.

With such barriers to leaving the house and getting around, people with disabilities are disadvantaged in a vast range of daily activities

Some major urban areas have been trying to up their game—Surabaya and Jakarta, for example, have both allocated hundreds of billions of rupiah in recent years to improve footpaths. In 2017, the city of North Jakarta alone dedicated IDR42 billion (USD2.93 million) to fixing the pavements of just five sub-districts.

“The Jakarta Provincial Government is beginning its implementation of the Law on People with Disabilities through making public services more accessible,” a spokesperson told New Naratif. “This includes ensuring buildings are equipped with ramps and guiding blocks; public entrances to buildings are wide enough for wheelchairs; lifts, ramps, and audio-visual information is available; and guiding blocks are properly installed in footpaths. We are also involving people with disabilities to trial these improvements. Not only that, the Provincial Government is also working across departments to build a sports facility and community centre for people with disabilities. We aim to have the building completed by the end of 2018.”

Yet as Fajri Nursyamsi, a researcher from the Centre for Indonesian Policy and Legal Studies, told Tirto.id in 2016 (link in Indonesian), making Indonesian cities disabled-friendly shouldn’t require extra budgeting.

“We don’t actually need to wait for budget [allocation],” Nursyamsi said, dismissing the fact that money is the problem. “We can attach [everything] to programmes that are already running… We just need a new way of looking at it.”

What Nursyamsi means is that it does not have to be expensive to make public facilities accessible; many things can actually be done through regular development and maintenance. For example, the authorities could begin installing ramps instead of stairs when building new pedestrian bridges, or include processes to ensure that things like manhole covers don’t protrude from the ground while doing routine work on footpaths.

A number of good examples were introduced by former Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama in 2016. Ahok installed S-shaped portals instead of bollards (link in Bahasa Indonesia) to stop motorbikes from using pavements while still enabling wheelchair users to pass through. He also ensured that all newly-developed or refurbished footpaths correctly used yellow guiding blocks, and often referred to Tokyo as the standard (link in Bahasa Indonesia) to which Jakarta should strive to achieve.

“My knees hurt every day”

Ashila Amriyani, 20, has used a wheelchair since starting university. “I’ve always had problems with mobility, and my condition has been getting worse every year,” she explains. “I don’t always use my wheelchair, because I can also walk on my knees. I did that for both junior and senior high school.”

Amriyani studies at a private university in central Jakarta, where she’s the only wheelchair user. She says getting around campus is challenging; although the university has made steps towards becoming disability-friendly, the implementation varies in quality.

“There are now access ramps [for wheelchair users], but the slope is too [steep],” she tells New Naratif. “There are lots of stairs, too, and although there are some escalators, they’re often broken. I am often forced to walk on my knees, because if I used my wheelchair, I wouldn’t be able to get around campus. My knees hurt every day.”

Amriyani says she depends heavily on her friends to help her get around. “I don’t like to rely on them,” she sighs. “So I often cancel plans to attend events on campus if I know accessibility will be a problem. I hate the idea that I am hassling other people; it’s better that I don’t attend.”

“I often cancel plans to attend events on campus if I know accessibility will be a problem. I hate the idea that I am hassling other people; it’s better that I don’t attend”

One of Amriyani’s worst experiences was in 2013, when she tried to attend a football match at Gelora Bung Karno (GBK), Jakarta’s largest sports stadium: “Back then, GBK was not accessible at all for disabled people. That was the first time I’d been there. I was really excited to attend the game but also frustrated at the accessibility. It was so crowded and chaotic, everyone was trying to get in.”

Amriyani was afraid of getting crushed, but fortunately, a couple of security guards noticed her. “The guards and some other match-goers took me to the front and let me inside. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t helped me.”

Beyond Jakarta

People with disabilities in other cities throughout Indonesia also experience similar problems. Desta Ariyana, a wheelchair user from Yogyakarta, says her city is far from mobility-friendly.

“I am not independent because I always have to ask someone to come with me when I go to a public place,” Ariyana says. “If I have to ask for help from a security guard or facility attendant, they don’t know how to assist me and are afraid they will make me uncomfortable. Even when using taxis, I’ve had drivers refuse to help me alight from the car.”

Like Amriyani, Ariyana has difficulties accessing buildings. “Most buildings here still have stairs or steps,” Ariyana explains. “Some have now added wheelchair ramps, but they are too steep, so I cannot use them when I am by myself.”

It’s a common problem raised by those who spoke to New Naratif: while building owners in Indonesia are increasingly aware of the need for access ramps, they lack knowledge of how to design or build them, and rarely consult people with disabilities during the development process. Ramps are frequently too short and too steep, making it impossible for wheelchair users, often even with assistance.

The mobility challenges of public transport

Indonesian public transport also fails to cater to people with mobility issues. Askoer Koerdiansyah, a 55-year-old Bandung resident, lost his right leg in a traffic accident in 2006. He uses a prosthetic leg to get around, but even then, encounters numerous problems when using public transport.

“Bandung doesn’t understand the needs of disabled people,” Koediansyah says. “Our public transport is difficult to use: the doors of vehicles are too high [above the ground], so it’s really hard to get on and off, and there are no dedicated seats for people with disabilities.”

In Jakarta, Amriyani also has problems using the city’s bus services. “The TransJakarta bus stops and the buses themselves are great, very disability-friendly,” she says. But, she points out, the bus stops are generally located in the middle of large roads, only accessible after one climbs two flights of stairs to cross a pedestrian bridge. “This shows implementation is still only halfway there. We need changes that encompass all elements.”

Cars, buses and other vehicles stuck in a traffic jam in the main business district avenue at night in Jakarta, Indonesia capital city. Credit: AsiaTravel / Shutterstock.com

Elisa Sutanadjaja, Executive Director of Rujak Centre for Urban Studies, agrees that half-hearted efforts are almost as bad as no effort at all. “Even for able-bodied people such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly, there’s no point” if implementation is only halfway done, she tells New Naratif. “With TransJakarta bus stops in the middle of major roads, we have to exert serious effort to get there; this alone shows that there was little thought put into users’ needs.”

“Pedestrians and cyclists are second-class citizens in Jakarta,” Sutanadjaja continues. “Just last week, I met three different people—one elderly woman and two pregnant women—who were all exhausted from using TransJakarta bus stops. [When I met them] they were sitting on the floor to rest before continuing their journeys.”

Despite this, there are some positive experiences, where people are willing to look out for those in need of assistance. Dimas Prasetyo Muharam has been totally blind since the age of 12. “I have a card from the Jakarta provincial government that lets me use TransJakarta buses for free,” Muharam says. “The TransJakarta staff are always very helpful at bus stops and transit stations. What is difficult is actually the condition of the footpaths [nearby]—I use a cane so it is a problem when so many pavements are broken.”

Amriyani says she’s optimistic that further change will come. “We need to focus on improving the whole system, not just focus on one part at a time,” she comments. “Large-scale change will be much better for everyone. I don’t want to lose hope—I believe Jakarta will be more inclusive some day.”

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Kate Walton

Kate Walton is a queer feminist activist living in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is the founder of the Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group, and one of the organisers of Women's March Jakarta and Feminist Fest 2017. Kate is on Twitter at @waltonkate.