HIGHER EDUCATION FOR STUDENTS WITH VISUAL IMPAIRMENT IN INDONESIA
the 2nd International Conference on Higher Education for Students with Disabilities
Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan, March 27, 2005
By Didi Tarsidi
Indonesia University of Education (UPI), Bandung, Indonesia
Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of over 17,000 islands large and small with the population of about 215 million people. It is estimated that the population with visual impairment constitutes 1% of the whole population, i.e. over two million people.
The first school for the blind in Indonesia was established by a Dutch ophthalmologist, Dr. Westhoff, in 1901 in Bandung. The number of special schools for the blind grew rapidly after the first Indonesian Education Act was passed in 1952 (seven years after Indonesian independence). Most special schools for the blind offer nine years of schooling (six years of primary school and three years of junior high school). Many blind students go to regular high schools to continue their schooling, and this has been practiced since early 1960-s, long before the idea of integrated education was introduced in Indonesia in 1978 and inclusive education in 1998.
The first blind persons to study at a university in Indonesia were in the second half of 19960’s. Through a lot of advocacy by blind individuals and their advocates and pressure from organizations of the blind, more and more universities and other higher education institutions are open to blind students. Currently about 250 blind and visually impaired students are studying at universities and other higher education institutions. Courses in higher education that are most popular among persons with visual impairment include: language (English; Indonesian; German; Arabic; Sundanese), special education, law, social politics, guidance and counseling, civic education, and theology.
However, apart from giving the students opportunity to be enrolled at university, too little progress has been made from the university side to provide organized support to help students with visual impairment. No such offices for Students with Disabilities available at universities and colleges in Indonesia. This has made blind and visually impaired students to work harder than necessary and depend upon voluntary service in order to succeed in exercising their rights for higher education.
The five most significant challenges that face blind and visually impaired students wishing to study at the university level include:
1. Attitudinal barriers in the higher education community
2. Access to reading materials
3. Access to assistive technology
4. Orientation and environmental accessibility
5. Financial support.
Attitudinal Barriers in the Higher Education Community
Receptiveness of Indonesian universities and other higher education institutions to students with visual impairment varies greatly. Certain universities in major cities welcome these students, but many other higher education institutions, especially in smaller towns, tend to reject students with visual impairment. Indonesian Persons with Disabilities Act 1997 has been the main tool of advocacy and pressure for persons with visual impairment to have access to higher education. Article 11 of the 1997 Persons with Disabilities Act specifically stipulates that every person with disabilities has equal opportunity for education at every level. This, of course, should be translated that persons with disabilities, including those with visual impairment, have the right to higher education. However, some people’s ignorance of the law and their non understanding of the nature of visual impairment often hinder students with visual impairment in entering higher education institutions. Their official excuse to not to accept these students is that the higher education institutions have no resources to meet the special needs of students with visual impairment. Organizations of the blind are still fighting to remedy the situation by doing a lot of advocacy and awareness campaign. The progress has been slow but changes to the better are showing up. One remarkable progress is the fact that for the last ten years or so, the Higher Education Admission Committee even has been providing entrance test materials in Braille. Apart from this, however, no universities provide organized support for students with visual impairment. Below is how the students manage to cope with their university life.
Access to Reading Materials
To secure textbooks and other required reading materials in accessible format, the majority of blind and visually impaired students prepare their own notes with the help of voluntary readers. The students usually are responsible for arranging their own readers service. Another major means of access to print is audiocassettes, either prepared by the students themselves using their personal cassette recorders or, to some extent, prepared by service organizations specializing in providing recorded materials for the blind. Availability of Braille books from Braille presses is still scarce. Braille presses still give priority to producing textbooks for schoolchildren.
Access to Assistive Technology
While assistive technology (such as computer with speech or Braille output and low vision devices) is becoming more and more prevalent, so far there are not yet any organized efforts to provide blind and visually impaired students with the assistive technology that would help them with their university studies. However, due to computer skill training programme run by organizations of and for the blind, a number of students managed to gain the computer skill, and and even managed to own their own computer. This way, the use of floppy disks or CDs to access reading materials is becoming more and more common. However, despite the fact that computer is currently much more affordable than before, special access software like screen readers is still much too expensive for the majority of blind and visually impaired individuals, and so ownership of a PC is limited to a lucky few.
Orientation and Environmental Accessibility
One of the major problems facing students with visual impairment when exposed to a new environment such as the university is orientation and mobility in the environment. They will need somebody to help them get oriented, and some changes in the physical characteristics of the environment are necessary to enable them to navigate the environment independently more easily. However, while no organized support from the university to help students with visual impairment with their campus orientation, the students generally manage to get oriented with the help of mobility instructors from special schools for the blind or from fellow students. Regarding the environmental accessibility, although the Persons with Disabilities Act 1997 stipulates that public entities should be made accessible to persons with disabilities, proof of action towards this objective is hardly visible.
My observation indicates that most blind people in Indonesia come from low-income families. However, maybe the most obvious support given by higher education institutions to students with visual impairment is financial support. Requests for reduction of tuition fees or paying the tuition fees in installments are almost always considered and approved, and students with visual impairment are very often given priority as recipients of scholarships. This may be due to the traditional perception of blind persons as objects of pity and charity.
While obviously there is no specially organized support at universities in Indonesia to help students with visual impairment to meet their special needs, the students, to some extent, manage to succeed in organizing their own support in order to finish their studies. This, of course, is made possible because the universities show a good understanding and tolerance, give encouragement and, most of all, give the opportunity.
The establishment of Offices for Students with Disabilities in many universities in a number of countries have proved to be helpful in securing that students with disabilities get necessary help in order to have an easier university life. Efforts should be made to ensure that such offices are established in Indonesian higher education institutions. The tasks of these offices should include, among others, providing reading materials in accessible formats (such as Braille, large print, audio recording or on computer disks), readers service, assistive technology, orientation courses, creating more accessible environment, guidance and counseling. In providing these services, the offices can cooperate with service organizations for the blind.
The steps towards achieving this goal should include:
- approach by organizations of persons with disabilities to the government and members of parliament in order to issue a new law or amend the existing law stipulating provision of such services with financial support from the government;
- approach to universities and other higher education institutions to persuade them establish the office and to help them organize services.
I am looking forward to learning from other countries participating in this conference about their experiences and ideas to help students with visual impairment in their countries that are likely to be implemented in Indonesia.