In Indonesia, a disabled person in a public place is a rare sight, mainly because the majority of buildings and public facilities fails to meet the needs of people with impairments. But beyond the lack of infrastructure, social stigmas in Indonesia also make it difficult for disabled people to summon the confidence to go to public spaces, as discrimination can cause feelings of shame and anxiety.
This is not the case, however, with John H.G. Soe. Although a childhood disease left him unable to walk for years, he has never felt embarrassed, bitter or resentful. He overcame hardships that might have broken someone else’s spirit.
As a baby, John fell sick with polio. His superstitious parents considered it a sign of bad luck, so they dropped the 4-month-old off at a hospital in Medan.
Left unclaimed, John was later brought to a Dutch Roman Catholic orphanage, where nuns took care of disabled children. It became John’s first home.
During school holidays, the students usually spent some time with their parents, but nobody ever came to pick up John. When he was 8 years old, the convent was scheduled for major renovations over the holidays, and John couldn’t stay.
The nuns eventually brought him to where his birth parents were living.
“My mother rejected me,” he said. “She knew that I was her son, but she didn’t want me in the house. She felt ashamed and saw it as a bad omen.”
The nun, however, insisted that John stay there for two weeks — his parents had no choice but to accept their outcast son back into their home.
What followed was a devastating time for the boy. He was kept in isolation — his eight siblings were told to stay away from him. At night, he slept on the floor, and during the day, he was kept behind the house, in a small courtyard. When it was time to eat, he’d get different meals than the rest of the family.
“One of my aunts who lived there, as well, secretly cooked proper meals for me,” John recalled. “Maybe she felt pity. But when my parents found out, they scolded her.”
When John came back to the convent, the nuns were shocked at his condition.
“My skin was covered by mosquito bites, and I had become quite skinny,” John said. “They never brought me back to the house, even on the holidays.”
But John’s young spirit was still strong. Even though the polio took its toll on him, he was determined to learn how to walk. He crawled for short distances, but most of the time, he used a pair of steel calipers, leather braces and a wooden crutch to walk.
“We didn’t have wheelchairs, because they were still a luxury during that time [in the 1960s],” John said.
In June 1973, a Dutch-born Singaporean businessman, a former Red Cross volunteer, contacted the orphanage looking to adopt a child. He wanted to look after someone who never had the privilege of growing up with loving parents.
“The nun immediately thought about me, because I was always left behind,” John said.
The orphanage arranged for John to meet Ted de Ponti. When the nun told the 13-year-old boy that he would receive a visitor, he bursted with excitement.
“It was a Sunday, and I waited from early morning, wearing my best clothes,” John recalled. “He came around 4 in the afternoon. He looked at me, came over and just hugged me. I felt so much warmth through this immediate contact.”
Uncle Ted, as John still affectionately refers to his foster father, took the boy out shopping. The man bought him new clothes and even his first watch.
“He took me to dinner with some of his friends, and this was also the first time for me to have a decent meal in a restaurant,” John said. “And he said to all his friends that I was his adopted son. I didn’t understand it though at the time, because they were speaking in English.”
Uncle Ted began to visit him on a regular basis. He was also a member of the Rotary Club in Singapore, and after he mentioned John’s medical condition, Rotarians in Singapore and Zevenaar, the Netherlands, decided to help the boy. In 1973, John went to Singapore for surgery.
“At first I was crying because I didn’t want to be left behind at the hospital, but when I saw that some of the nurses were Dutch nuns, I felt at home,” John said.
He stayed in the hospital for eight months and underwent four orthopedic surgeries. After a few months, John saw improvements in his right leg, and his ankles began to function.
“That’s why I can drive a car today,” he said, adding that his time as an in-patient wasn’t all negative. “I made friends with a lot of the patients, and even after they went back home, they’d come back to visit me. Some of them are still my friends today.”
The money allocated for the surgery, however, didn’t have to be used after all — after John was discharged from the hospital, he learned that the doctors agreed to give him the treatment for free. Singapore Airlines even covered his plane ticket.
“The funds were then used for my education,” John explained.
After finishing high school in Medan, he went on to study architecture in Singapore and interior design in London. He returned to Indonesia in 1985 and founded his own company in Jakarta, which he still runs today. He now walks using one crutch.
Despite the obstacles that he had to overcome, John doesn’t hold a grudge against his parents. In fact, when he moved back to Indonesia, the first thing he did was attempt to reach out to his family.
He discovered that they had moved from Medan to Jakarta, and made contact through his older brother.
He hadn’t seen his family for 17 years, and when they reunited, his mother still kept her distance.
Even though they asked for his forgiveness later, John said that the relationship always remained strained.
“I told them that there was nothing to forgive,” he said. “I didn’t look for them for some sort of revenge.”
John, always an optimist, looked on the bright side of his troubled past.
“I wanted to reconcile and also to thank them,” John added. “Because if they hadn’t left me at the hospital, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would never have had the opportunity to have the surgery. I could be on the streets, begging. So I told them, let’s just see the positive side. But they still felt guilty.”
John didn’t let his difficult history get in the way of starting his own family, though. He married in 1988 and is the father of two children — a 23-year-old son, who will graduate from university this week, and a 14-year-old daughter. But John’s foster father, Uncle Ted, passed away shortly after John’s son was born.
“I think he was waiting,” he said, adding that he brought his 2-week-old baby to Singapore to see Uncle Ted, who was in the last stage of lung cancer. “He held him in his arms, and we cried, and two weeks after that, he died.”
John said that he owes everything to the kindness of the nuns in the orphanage, Uncle Ted and the Rotary Club. He joined the Rotary Club in Jakarta in April 2004.
Since then, he has been fighting relentlessly for the causes of the Rotary Club, first and foremost to raise awareness of polio — the sickness that so deeply influenced his own life and can’t be cured, only prevented.
In 2005, there was a polio outbreak in Indonesia, and John spearheaded direct immunization campaigns in several districts in Jakarta. But some parents refused to let their kids receive the vaccination.
“I told them that I had polio, and asked them if they wanted their children to be crippled like me,” John said. “That convinced them.”
The Rotary Club regularly holds charity events to raise funds for its projects. The latest event was held on Friday night at the Grand Hyatt, where John spoke about his experiences.
“The Rotary Club has done so much for me, and this way, I can give something back,” he said, adding that he also credits his own determination and spirit as major influences in overcoming hardship.
Every time someone asks John how he managed to stay inspired throughout his life despite the tough challenges, he simply replies that there are a lot of people in this world who had it even worse than he did.
“Sometimes, when I hear other people with disabilities complain, I tell them that they are still lucky. Some people who come from very poor families, don’t even have enough money to buy food,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason, and it all comes from within you. If you stay positive, you move forward. And that’s what I have been trying to do my whole life.”