Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Wheelchair charity spinning hope for the underprivileged

By William Furney

JAKARTA (JP): The needs of the people are great in this vast tropical archipelago. By now, the term "economic crisis" or "crismon" seems so overused and worn out, it has all but lost its meaning.

But the grim realities remain: people haven't enough food and what little purchasing power there was, has been eaten away. The latest World Health Organization (WHO) report puts the number of poor, under its new yardstick of those who spend less than US$1.50 (about Rp 13,000) per day on necessities, at over 100 million. That macabre figure is almost half the population.

When it comes to disability and handicaps, there's not much in the way of sympathy, particularly for the needs of those who are afflicted. They may have enough to eat but if requirements such as wheelchairs are sought, there's very little that can be done. The government doesn't provide any such facility.

In fact, the voice of the poor is not one that ever reaches those in the overstuffed chairs of the House of Representatives, for its members are, for the most part, too busy feathering their own nests to care. Even for the fortunate few who have wheelchairs, there's almost nowhere to go. Overburdened with a heaving population, the Jakarta administration does almost nothing to cater for the needs of the wheelchair-bound. Public transport is a catastrophe, even for the able-bodied. And access to public buildings is strictly off-limits.

The President and First Lady, political matters aside, are both handicapped. He from a stroke and diabetes, she from a motorcar accident, leaving her confined to a wheelchair. It would seem an opportune time to raise the issue of disability, and attempt to establish some of the facilities and infrastructure that's lacking. But then, there's an almost unbreachable gap between the elite in this country and the have-nots, who are merely seen as a subservient irritant from the tinted panes of luxury foreign cars.

Maz Inung, 37, was stricken with polio aged one and a half and was a victim of a car crash 25 years ago, leaving him permanently disabled and wheelchair-bound. His are imported from Germany at a cost of between US$3,000 and $4,000 - some are titanium-based for sports favorites of his, such as tennis and basketball. A political journalist working for an Australian television station and member of a disabled organization, Maz says Jakarta is no place for people in wheelchairs. Through the organization, he's targeting well-oiled politicians for cash donations. "Many feel guilty about the money they've gotten over the years through corruption and are willing to give some of it back."

For those who are not as fortunate as Maz, there's a dedicated bunch at the Merdeka project at Fatmawati General Hospital, South Jakarta. Set up with assistance from the British charity Motivation in 1994, Merdeka (meaning Freedom) produces low-cost, custom-made wheelchairs. It's run by a board of trustees comprising locals and expatriates, with First Lady Sinta Nuriyah as its patron. Motivation designs wheelchairs for developing countries and has set up enterprises in, among other places, Cambodia, Poland, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

A specialist at the spinal unit at Fatmawati Hospital and Merdeka coordinator Dr. Lestaria Aryanti says people whose lower extremities are paralyzed, stroke patients, geriatrics and cerebral palsy victims are the main users of wheelchairs.

"It's very expensive for them to get wheelchairs, as they are usually imported," she says adding, "We make them from local materials, so they are cheaper."

It's not just a question of money, though. Imported wheelchairs, and even those made here, are often too big for Indonesians. That's why chairs made by Merdeka, the only charity of its kind in this country, are tailor-made for each individual and tough enough to cope with rough village terrain. "People come to our clinic, I assess them and discuss their requirements with the workshop," says Dr. Lestari.

For those who cannot afford the entire cost of a chair, Merdeka will provide one for a minimum payment of 10 percent. An adult wheelchair costs Rp 670,000, with a child's priced at Rp 710,000, both of which are cost price.

Merdeka's workshop is on the hospital grounds and produces a maximum 25 wheelchairs per month. But with orders flowing in from all-round the country, demand is far higher. The waiting list runs to three months. Currently, there is a staff of six at the workshop, three of whom are disabled. With a payroll of Rp 350,000 per employee a month, funding is a constant headache.

As the charity's fund-raiser, Danielle White, says, "I have sleepless nights when there's not enough money to run the workshop and there's a possibility it could close."

It takes between Rp 10 million and Rp 15 million to keep the workshop open each month. But this British woman is due to sleep sounder these days, as The St. George's Society, an expatriate social club, has adopted Merdeka as its official charity. That doesn't mean, however, that money problems are over: "I still need help, as next year we plan to produce 40 wheelchairs a month," says White.


Many of the disabled in Indonesia are virtual prisoners in their homes. Unable to move about, they are resigned to living their lives confined to their houses, bedridden and with no exercise or stimulation. A lack of a network and awareness of Merdeka adds to the problem. The charity plans to broaden its image with regional Ministry of Health offices early next year by producing a booklet on Merdeka.

Along with receiving financial aid from businesses, Merdeka has also netted donations of tires and free delivery of the wheelchairs, including from the Indonesian Army.

The majority of wheelchairs are sent to places such as Yogyakarta, Bali and Flores.

"When you hear what a big impact the wheelchairs make when they arrive on the islands, it makes it all worthwhile, " says White.

"I do it because I know it makes a difference and I get a total buzz from that ... it feels a lot more realistic than the mollycoddled expat existence I enjoy the rest of my time."

Agus Gunawan is about to know the value of a wheelchair. The 18-year-old from Kebayoran Lama, South Jakarta, fell from a three-meter-high grease pole that had various gifts perched atop - a traditional Independence Day game - just over a month ago. His spine was injured and doctors are doubtful the youngster will walk again.

"I'm very sad about what happened," he said from his bed at Fatmawati Hospital, "I need a wheelchair but my parents can only afford to pay Rp 400,000. Thankfully, the rest is paid for by Merdeka." And he's just one of many thousands.

If you wish to make a donation to Merdeka Wheelchairs, please telephone 7504168.