Indonesia has made good progress towards increasing enrolment in higher education but it still has a long way to go to improve equity – especially for people with disability. Stigma, physical barriers and a lack of supportive policies and academic services continue to keep most Indonesians with disability locked out of higher education. To have any hope of earning a degree they need support from families, the community and the government – and a huge amount of personal determination.
Zilfathanah Arranury, or Ifha, is a 25-year-old teacher at a special school in Gowa in South Sulawesi, and is deaf. Of the estimated 36,000 people with disability who live in Makassar, she is one of the very few with a bachelor’s degree. Although Ifha was able to attend university, she says she was reluctant to apply because she felt embarrassed about attending classes with non-disabled peers. It was her father, a lecturer at Alauddin State Islamic University (UIN) in Makassar, who convinced her to try. After two attempts at the entrance exam, she was accepted into Makassar State University (UNM), the first ever student from her special school to make it.
Ifha’s anxiety is common among people with disability. It is an unintended consequence of the segregated special school system introduced in 1967. Most children with disabilities go to special schools for their primary and secondary education. Although the schools were created to provide an avenue to access education, the quality of these schools is often poor, and minimal efforts are made to prepare students to study alongside non-disabled students.
Some Indonesians with disability attend state high schools. Hamzah, a 32-year-old blind activist, also from Makassar, says he often had to put up with negative comments from teachers who complained about his performance in class but never offered additional support (extra tutorials, for example) or adapted materials or equipment to help him participate. While Hamzah was tolerated in the state school system, almost no efforts were made to ensure his experience was inclusive.
Despite a lack of encouragement from his teachers, Hamzah was adamant about pursuing higher education like his non-disabled peers, and dreamt of becoming a teacher at an Islamic school. But Hamzah’s enrolment was refused in 2003 by the education (tarbiyah) faculty at Alauddin UIN. He was told that a blind man could not become a teacher and the institute could not accommodate him. He was eventually accepted into the English literature department at UNM, which Ifha also attended.
Hamzah’s experience is far too common among people with disabilities. Until last year, the National Higher Education Entrance Exam (SNMPTN) excluded participants who were deaf, blind, physically disabled or colour-blind. Following a national outcry, this was changed. Yet students with disabilities remain challenged by inadequate support and a lack of accessible teaching and learning facilities in Indonesian higher education.
Without help from the educational sector, family support becomes critical. It played a significant role in both Hamzah’s and Ifha’s transition to higher education. Other children are not so lucky. Although attitudes are improving, many Indonesian parents consider children with disability a burden on the family. Education is not seen as a pathway for their children to participate in employment or public life.
More than a decade ago, the Indonesian government included provisions on the need for education for people with special needs in Law No. 20 of 2003 on National Education. It eventually ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011 (through Law No. 19 of 2011). This obliges it to provide people with disability with access to education, employment and health care. It was not until the Ministry of Education and Culture published Regulation No. 46 of 2014, however, that requirements for accessible higher education were spelled out in greater detail.
Although progress is slow, some institutions have taken major steps. Brawijaya University in Malang and Sunan Kalijaga UIN in Yogyakarta, for example, have pioneered centres for disability studies and services that provide educational assistance for students. They started by building accessible infrastructure to help students with physical disabilities, and have recruited volunteers to assist students with disabilities in class, and run training programs to build awareness among educators.
Change may also be starting to occur within the government. This year, it made efforts to ensure disabled applicants were not excluded from entrance exams, and reminded exam organisers they could not refuse disabled applicants. At a recent conference on higher education for people with disability organised by Australian Catholic University and Sunan Kalijaga UIN in Yogyakarta, the director general of Islamic higher education, Professor Amsal Bakhtiar, said his office planned to reform policies on accessible higher education and start introducing inclusive education at Islamic institutions. Despite the strong emphasis on social justice in Islam, and the pioneering work of Sunan Kalijaga UIN, the reality is that Islamic higher education institutions have historically been among the worst performing institutions in this field.
Using Islamic texts to justify inclusive policies could be a vital first step in changing discriminatory attitudes. But a lot more will be needed. Sunan Kalijaga UIN, for example, said that to improve its services it needs more support from the ministry, including better training for staff, funds for accessible infrastructure, and adapted academic resources. None of that comes cheap but it has to happen. Access to education for people with disability is a right, not something only available to those very determined students lucky enough to have committed and supportive families.