TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The difficult task of raising a child is one thing that Marselita Harapan knows all too well. Her 17-year-old son Nico was born with mild autism and Asperger Syndrome, and she admits that even now she has days where she struggles to accept his condition.
“It’s so difficult, but I try my best. I try every day for his sake… and year after year, it feels like it gets a little easier.”
Many Indonesians view disabilities as a curse she says. They question whether the divine is punishing them for their sins. Despite her hardships, Marselita is thankful that her son’s condition is mild.
Her family is one of the lucky ones.
In Indonesia, children with special needs are generally placed in a segregated system of special schools known as Sekolah Luar Biasa or ‘SLB’. With six categories of schools that each cater for a specific type of condition, the system was introduced in 1967 in the hope of providing equal access to education.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aim to eliminate disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education for all children. This goal furthers the academic consensus that inclusive and equal education fosters independence for children with special needs, allowing students to be competitive in the workforce.
When Nico started school, Marselita placed him in a special needs class within a mainstream school. She says it was a good experience for Nico, but the mix of conditions in the class made it extremely difficult for the teachers to meet the needs of each individual student. Marselita says the school, like most in Indonesia, didn’t have the resources to rectify this issue.
After primary school, Nico’s school evaluated him and allowed him to continue his education as a fully integrated student in a mainstream school.
Marselita says the most important thing is now helping Nico prepare for life after high school.
“The most important thing that I focus on is how to prepare Nico so he can be independent…especially for when the time comes when I cannot be with him anymore. So that’s my focus.”
Despite Nico’s positive experience, Marselita doesn’t think mainstream schools are right for every student. She says it depends on the resources of each individual school, and their ability to cater for special needs students.
“If they have the capabilities, I think it’s better to mix the regular students with the special needs. But if the school doesn’t have the appropriate resources, I don’t think that’s a good idea. It just gets too hard for the teachers.”
Maryati Sri Supadmi has been working with special needs kids for 33 years. As the principal of SLB B-C Kasih Bundah school in West Jakarta, she is all too familiar with the challenges her students and their families confront on a daily basis. The school services more than 100 deaf, autistic and Down Syndrome students, 80 percent of whom come from poorer families.
When it comes to inclusive schooling, she says the mainstream system is not ready for students like hers. They don’t have the teachers with the requisite skills to teach special needs students she explains. Some of her students have attended a regular school for a short period, but they were often abandoned by their teachers.
“They didn’t care about their improvement. The teachers didn’t want our kids to disturb the others.”
Most of those students returned to her school, she says.
All teachers at the Kasih Bundah school have at least some training in special needs education. Classroom separations are based on students’ conditions and age. The school’s deaf students also have some cognitive disabilities and require a tailored mode of content delivery. Class for the school’s more mature pupils focuses less on academics and more on developing skills that foster independence. They learn to sew and screen-print t-shirts.
“There are graduates who actually have jobs now,” Principal Supadmi says proudly.
One look around the school building and at the beaming faces of its students, and it becomes immediately clear Kasih Bundah is not only a school for these children but a sanctuary. Upbeat music echoes through the building, filtering down from the third story as the older students indulge in some lunchtime karaoke and dancing. Downstairs, their younger peers diligently work on colorful drawings.
In a sea of youthful faces, some students stick out. 42-year-old Santoso has been a pupil at the school since Principal Supadmi’s early teaching days. When he started at the school she was young and single. Now she has grandkids.
A middle-aged woman with greying hair lined up with the children as they waited patiently for their lunch. She is also a student.
“There are several who don’t want to quit,” says Principal Supadmi, laughing fondly.
“They want to go to the school where they have friends and activities to do.”
Despite many of her students’ families repeatedly failing to make their tuition payments, she says she doesn’t have the heart to stop the children from attending the school.
In fact, she often gives the kids small amounts of money out of her own wage for completing odd jobs around the school.
“I feel like this is my calling. How could I say no?” she says.
Erni Adi Asuti is also familiar with the individualized nature of teaching necessary to provide special needs students with a quality education. As manager of the London School Centre for Autism Awareness, she agrees there cannot be a one size fits all approach.
“When parents put their kids into an inclusive school and the teachers can’t handle them, it does nothing to benefit the children. In this case, I think it’s important that there are separate schools for them to get ready before they enter inclusive schools.”
She explains whether or not a child should be in a regular classroom depends on their individual capabilities.
Despite the government encouraging all schools to be inclusive, she says they don’t offer any guidance to teachers as to how to effectively teach students with special needs.
After his years of advising the Education Ministry about best practice for education, Doni Koesema A. doesn’t dispute the fact special needs students are being left behind by the current system. He says the government’s few ‘inclusive schools’ may be inclusive by name, but not in practice.
He says he believes accepting students into mainstream schools without the capacity to teach them is an affront to their human dignity. He thinks achieving a truly inclusive system of education in Indonesia will require a correction of society’s perspective.
“I think we need to first improve the mindset of the teachers, and especially the principal because they are the person responsible for the betterment of the school.”
He says an inclusive model is favorable for all, not just for the students with special needs. Having them interact with regular school pupils is crucial to trigger the mindset shift necessary to move towards systematic change.
“I believe if in elementary school we educate our students to respect disabled people they will respect them.”
He explains when he studied at a university in Boston, some of his fellow students and his lecturer were blind. He says seeing people who were so capable despite their disabilities shifted his perspective, and it’s these experiences Indonesia needs to facilitate for its own people.
He believes truly inclusive education in Indonesia will be a slow process, but he remains hopeful.
“Our society is still not aware of the rights of people, but I believe in the future.”
Laura Daly and Lauren Reddiex | Grace Octavia and Vicky Andaraputri
Laura Daly and Lauren Reddiex visited Indonesia with support from the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan mobility program.