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Indonesian places of worship inaccessible for disabled people

Mosques and churches are working on making their buildings more inclusive for people with disabilities

Indonesian places of worship inaccessible for disabled people

A wheelchair sign points to a wheelchair ramp at St. Joseph Parish Church in Matraman, East Jakarta. (ucanews.com photo)

Published: October 06, 2016 04:36 AM GMT

Updated: October 06, 2016 04:48 AM GMT

Fransiskus Xaverius Widiyanto’s stroke began with a loss of hearing.

"When I was playing a guitar, a really bad headache suddenly hit me," he said. "I frequently vomited. Then I began to lose all hearing in my right ear."

Two years later, he lost hearing in his left ear too. He began to feel hopeless.

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"I thought to myself, how do I deal with this? Then I came to a decision that I should live my life with a smile," he said. However, he faced discrimination.

"My friends chose not to look at me when we were talking. I felt awkward at first," said Widiyanto, 46, who has now learned to lip-read.



As a parishioner of St. John Vianney Church in Jakarta, Widayanto found it difficult to attend Sunday Mass.

"Accessibility for the deaf is different from other disabled people. The deaf need interpreters," he said.

Two years ago, he began to serve as secretary of the Jakarta-based Community for Deaf Catholics.

"I usually go to Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral Church in Jakarta as it provides the deaf with interpreters," he said. 

Winarsih, a Muslim woman, has been disabled since she was born and uses a wheelchair. "My parents taught me to accept my condition. They taught me how to be self-reliant," said the 39 year-old mother.

"Society cannot be like what I want. If I want to be seen as a person who can do things on my own then I must show it," she added.

Winarsih, who is head of the Association of Indonesian Disabled Females in Yogyakarta, said that many mosques and mushola (small mosques) in the region are inaccessible to people with disabilities.

"The more a mosque is beautifully built, the more it has stairs. It means that people using wheelchairs cannot gain access," she said.

Many people with disabilities face difficulties accessing places of worship, according to Setia Adi Purwanta, director of the Disability Study and Training Centre for Social Transformation.

"Lots of places of worship are built very beautifully. But they aren’t accessible to those using wheelchairs and other equipment," said Purwanta who was himself left blind after an accident in 1976.

"Deaf attendance at places of worship means nothing if they cannot understand what priests, pastors, ulemas and other religious leaders say in their prayers and homilies," he said.

"Not to mention our brothers and sisters with other barriers that are seen as disruptive when they attend religious ceremonies in places of worship," he said.

Disabled people’s right to worship is still far from being fulfilled, he added.


An interpreter (standing in front, wearing black shirt) helps the deaf attending Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral Church in Jakarta (Photo supplied by the Community for Deaf Catholics)


Efforts to change

Purwanta has met with local religious leaders including Muslim clerics and Catholic priests to discuss the issue.

On Sept. 26 the Yogyakarta chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a circular letter calling on all mosques and musholas in the town to provide disabled people with wheelchair ramps, guiding blocks and handrails as well as accessible toilets. 

The next day, Father Yohanes Dwi Harsanto from Immaculate Virgin Mary Church in Kumetiran received a visit from Purwanta’s NGO.

The priest said that his parish started to build wheelchair ramps, guiding blocks and a screen display for deaf parishioners. "It’s almost done," he said.

He suggested each diocese think about access for disabled people. "It means that we don’t just pray for them. But we meet their right to worship," he said.



Fransiskus Xaverius Dwi Susanto, an interpreter serving the deaf at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral Church in Central Jakarta, said that providing accessibility for disabled people "remains homework for the Catholic Church."

"Deaf people need to sit close to the altar and keep their eyes open wide for lip-reading. This is very tiring," he said.

Fortunately, the cathedral has allowed him and other interpreters to help the deaf during Sunday Mass. "Now they feel that their right to worship is met," he said.

Meanwhile, Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, from the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference, said that the conference hasn’t focused on the issue yet.

"Nevertheless, the issue is the conference’s concern because many disabled people still face difficulty in accessing places of worship. It’s very concerning," he said. "They are also followers of God. We should not discriminate against disabled people." 



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