The Protection of Religious Freedom for Persons with Disabilities

Ali Jafar | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report


The first CRCS/ICRS Wednesday Forum of 2016 welcomed Risnawati Utami, an activist for the human rights of persons with disabilities who recently played an important role in resolving a case concerning the rights of persons with disabilities in Bali to participate in their religion. . Together with her organization named OHANA (Organisasi Harapan Nusantara), she advocates for the human rights of persons with disabilities  for shifting understanding about disabilities to ensure that persons with disabilities are treated as full and equal members of Indonesian society.

In her presentations, Risnawati said that “persons with disabilities constitute about 15% of the world’s population, meaning they are the largest minority in the world and mostly in the developing countries. Why persons with special needs required attention, it is because they are still discriminated against.” In religious model,  Utami gave an example about persons with disabilities in Bali. Culturally in Bali, disabilities are understood as resulting from karma or actions done by the parents in their life or as punishment from bad behavior they did. When they have a disabled child, they will put their child in a different place, not in the main house. This happens not only in Bali, but also in many places.

Furthermore, Utami said that in Indonesia generally, the government looks on the person with disabilities as the object of charity, as a person who needs help and as object of development, it is kind of charity model happened. She told about disabled organizations which get a lot of rehabilitation programs, economic  assistance, money, etc. ‘Can we see normality with disabilities?” said she. In medical model, Utami explained that she got polio when she was four, which has made her unable to walk. Her parents tried to make her normal. She completely disagrees with this model. It sees disability as not normal.

The term of disable is itself a problem. Utami explained that in Indonesia it is still common to use “penyandang cacat” which refers to a person with “special needs.” Meaning, we are still labelizing them. In the concept of humanity, we should not define people as  “disabled,” but as “persons” because we are using concept of humanity in advocacy.  According to the Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities, which Indonesia and most other countries have ratified, all people with disabilities can enjoy all the same human rights as everybody else, including  religious freedom.

The third article of CRPD calls for the recognition of human rights and human diversity. Indonesia has not fulfilled this point, as can be seen from how LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) Indonesians cannot be religious leaders. A man who is gay and has a ‘disability’ ,  for example, cannot be a leader for other men in praying. He can be the leader only for woman.. Another related example is that according to  marriage law in Indonesia, a man can be divorced or marry a second wife is his wife becomes disabled.  Utami argued that this is discrimination against persons with disabilities.

Utami told a her story about when she was young. Her caretaker carried her to Mushola, and all the people there were asking why she was being carried.  In Indonesia, public buildings are not designed to adequately accommodate persons with disabilities. In contrast, Risnawati told another story about a Muslim friend in England who is blind and can go everywhere with his seeing-eye dog, including the mosque.   This situation would not be possible in Indonesia. Utami said that this is homework for Islamic leaders: can they learn to allow a blind Muslim into the mosque with a dog in order to pray?. Utami also told about her experience in America when a pastor invited her to go to his church, which was in a building is accessible for wheelchairs. She felt she could fully participate in life in America.

Utami continued that there is a custum, when a disable enters the temple and they fall down, the temple should be purified. It is quite debatable with religious organization in Bali. What Utami and her organization have done is creating mediation. In Indonesia generally, there are many deaf organizations in helping Muslim with disabilities. When they could not hear Khutbah (Jum’at prayer), they provide sign language for Muslim with disabilities. Utami mentioned  UIN Yogyakarta’s mosque as an example about friendly institution over the person with disabilities. There is sign language during khutbah and the building was designed for disable also. Utami told how the building should be designed universally, it will reduce physical barrier over person with disabilities.  Regarding to the freedom of religion, Utami said that it is about attitude and perspective, and how to eliminate ignorance and prejudice. It is also about how people like her can also have access to themosque.

In Discussion session, Samsul Ma’arif asked about the relation between religious freedom and universal design for persons with disabilities. It is because the way he understood religious freedom is about how we are not necessary to have similar though in religion. Utami responded the question saying that universal design is to accommodate people to come to that building. For Utami, the building is part of socialization, how people can get access to the accessible worship place like masques or church. Religious freedom is not about only about the same rights, but also about equal access.

Following Ma’arif, Mark Woodward asked about the most reason they rely on international organizations and Utami answered the Indonesian government responds to international pressure more than to lobbying from its own citizens.  Thus the CRPD is an important tool for social change in Indonesia.  Meta, a CRCS student, also asked about Utami’s opinion that religion also makes them as charity object? Utami answered that she has a quite liberal perspective, and sometimes still accepts the charity concept or uses several model on the time. “I advocated for persons with disabilities so they will not be underestimated.”

Editor: Greg Vanderbilt



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