Disabled Indonesian Students Are Separate, But Not Always Equal
Anita Rachman & Ulma Haryanto
Senna Rusli will forever be grateful that his parents encouraged him to study in an inclusive public school instead of continuing at a special school for people with disabilities, commonly known as an SLB.
After losing his sight when he was 2 years old because of measles, Senna went to special schools. For eight years, he studied in a homogeneous environment with other children with disabilities.
But his parents believed that for Senna to learn to adapt to the real world, he had to go to a regular school.
“I’ve been told by his teacher that Senna doesn’t have problems following lessons. His academic record is good. I think it’s good for him to compete with others in a public school,” said Asep Bobon, Senna’s 44-year-old father.
Leaving behind many of his friends at the SLB, Senna moved to State Junior High School (SMPN) No. 224 in Jakarta and later to State Senior High School (SMAN) No. 66 in Jakarta, where the 17-year-old is currently enrolled.
“I experienced many different things in a public school, including the way I interact with friends and the curriculum at the school,” Senna said. “I am happy and thankful. In SLB, students only learn certain things, like music or crafts. But in a public school, students learn various subjects that are good for their future.”
Senna said he wanted to become a journalist. “I want to work like other people [who are not visually impaired],” he said.
Special versus regular school
SMAN 66 Jakarta is one of thousands of inclusive schools nationwide that accept students with special needs like Senna.
Data from the Education and Culture Ministry show that the country has 1,858 SLBs, 1,654 inclusive elementary schools, and 320 inclusive junior high schools.
More than 73,100 disabled students go to SLBs, while more than 29,700 students go to inclusive schools at both the elementary and junior high levels.
The 2011 World Health Organization Report on Disabilities cited a 2008 survey that found only 20 percent of disabled Indonesian children of primary school age (6-11 years) and 19 percent of secondary school age (12-17 years) attended school.
In an inclusive public school, students with disabilities are treated the same as other students, attending the same classes and learning the same lessons from a standardized curriculum.
SLB schools, on the other hand, build the curriculum around each student.
“All children are placed under special observation for three to six months, sometimes a year in difficult cases, before we can determine which class they belong in,” said Ngadinem, one of the teachers at Zinnia SLB for the deaf and mentally disabled in Tebet, South Jakarta.
“After a while, we will recommend to the parents whether the child is fit to enter a general school or not.”
She said teachers in public schools sometimes forgot that they had a disabled student in their class and might not be aware of the child’s difficulties.
“But recently more and more state schools have been employing teachers with backgrounds in special education. I think it’s good that they’re gradually moving to inclusive education,” she said.
Emilia Kristiyanti, who oversees the Opportunities for Vulnerable Children program at Helen Keller International in Indonesia, said students who only have “light disabilities,” such as those with visual or hearing impairments, should be sent to inclusive schools and not SLBs.
“The only difference between those kids and the others is that they can’t see and others can. But does that have to stop them from attending the same class as other kids? No,” she said.
“All they need is access. What makes those students disabled is actually the people around them.”
Access, in the case of visually impaired students, means public schools have to have books and signs in Braille. For hearing impaired students who can read lips, it means seating them at the front of the class and ensuring that teachers speak clearly.
Emilia said many students with visual, hearing or physical impairments had good academic records, and thus to deny them access to a public school would be unfair.
Since 2003, HKI and the Education Ministry have worked closely on developing inclusive education programs that have been adopted by seven provinces so far: Jakarta, East Java, West Java, Central Java, Yogyakarta, Aceh and South Sulawesi.
Despite these efforts, there remains some resistance to the idea of letting children with disabilities study in regular schools.
Husaini Wardi, head of the ministry’s special education program, said his office was pushing more local governments to give students with disabilities access to public schools, but many officials still believed that the best place for the disabled was at an SLB.
“There are 125 districts and municipalities that do not have inclusive schools for disabled students. They don’t know of or understand the concept,” Husaini said. “But we’re working on this.”
Some parents, like Nani, 34, also prefer the safer environment of an SLB. Nani’s 10-year-old daughter lost her hearing after contracting a common cold when she was just a year old.
“I’ve always wanted to put her in an SLB. I don’t want her to be taunted at school, I don’t have the heart to let that happen,” she said.
But Emilia said public acceptance of inclusive schools was growing. Back in 2003, parents were concerned that disabilities were infectious and could hit their children sharing the same classroom as a disabled student.
“It’s not easy to change such perspectives. Children with disabilities are stigmatized. That’s why we’re always working to raise people’s awareness,” Emilia said.
She stressed that giving disabled students the chance to learn at regular schools was important, because they would learn valuable skills and be able to interact with others better.
“Students graduating from SLBs end up becoming masseurs or organ players. I’m not saying that these aren’t worthwhile professions, but they could be more than just that as long as we open up access for them,” she said.
SLBs, nevertheless, are still needed for students with severe disabilities and as a source of teachers and books, Emilia said.
Husaini said the government had improved the quality of some SLBs, but added that more needed to be done.
He also said the government needed to encourage public schools to embrace inclusive education.