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Wayan Damai stays up late watching DVDs with his friends, then wakes up early and drives himself to work.  Putu Suriati, a gifted artist, has just traveled alone to Java and Australia.  Ketut Sri, a wood carver, recently attended a sell-out exhibition of her work in Brisbane and used some of the proceeds to buy a hand phone so she could SMS her friends.
What makes these ordinary activities extraordinary?  All these young Balinese are paraplegic.  What’s the common factor that got them out into the world? A set of wheels. 
A handicapped child is challenged in any society. But in Bali, where such misfortunes are seen as the manifestation of black magic or bad karma, the impact on child and family is particularly severe.  Children with disabilities often never leave the family compound; some have seldom left their rooms.  Family shame and the child’s own embarrassment prevent attendance at school — in any case, why incur the expense of educating a child who will probably never be able to work?  So the children are sequestered from society and often illiterate.
According to official government statistics, there are about 14,000 physically disabled Balinese.  This is almost certainly a very conservative estimate.  A recent informal study revealed a surprising number of young adults who had been disabled by polio. 
Although she was a clever wood carver, until she was 20 Ketut Sri had never left her village of Lod Tunduh.  Typical of young Balinese who have been socially isolated by a disability, she was extremely shy and ashamed to be seen in public. “She wouldn’t even look you in the eye,” reports Vern Cork, who has been identifying and assisting disabled Balinese for several years. 
Almost all of us take the privilege of mobility for granted.  A wheelchair offers unimaginable opportunities to those who have never been able to move unaided.   The gift of a wheelchair radically changed Ketut Sri’s life.  She was able to leave her house for the first time, and with the help of a growing group of enlightened individuals and NGOs was soon attending social events, making new friends and learning to speak English.
Battling Parkinsons’s disease and confined to a wheelchair himself until two years ago, Vern is acutely aware of the importance of social integration for the disabled.  “I live a positive, productive life as part of the community,” he points out.  “If I’d been isolated at home all my life, I’m sure my disease would have progressed much more quickly.  No wonder so many disabled in Bali feel suicidal.”
About three years ago, Vern turned his wheelchair-accessible home into a gallery and held frequent art exhibitions attended by both able and disabled people.  For many disabled Balinese, it was the first beam of light in a life of isolation and depression. “It was their first experience of mixing socially with others in an environment where there was no judgment or stigma,” Vern recalls.  “They had a chance to see what other disabled people were doing, what was possible.  They could compare their situations and understand that they were better off than many others.  And they met able people who treated them with respect.”
Vern has since been involved in founding Senang Hati, an NGO  that focuses on helping handicapped young people who have spent their lives behind compound walls learn to socialize and gain self esteem.
“ This is much more than simply socializing on a superficial level,” he explains.  “When disabled people regularly attend events, swim, go to movies and take part in group outings there are remarkable changes in personality.  They learn to move confidently in the world.  People who were too embarrassed to leave the car on their first outing are now eager to learn and see new things.  Several have taken English and computer courses, others are artists, some now have paying jobs.”
The Social Welfare Department of the Indonesian Government is now recognizing that the physically disabled have something to offer society.  It is now trying to raise awareness of the issue, and recently published a book about the ways in which their lives have improved through integration at Senang Hati.  “We’re beginning to see change,” says Vern.  “Disabled people are moving about more freely, working and taking part in the community.  It’s going to be a long process, but with increased awareness on both sides and government acknowledgement, things will improve.”
Increased awareness means increased visibility, and that means providing more disabled people with wheelchairs so they can begin their journey to integration.
Only a handful of Bali’s physically disabled have access to a set of wheels.  Ketut Sri is one of the lucky ones.  Damai’s even luckier; he has an adapted motorcycle and sidecar. I asked Vern what the usual response was when a disabled person was first presented with a wheelchair.  “Almost always they say it is the happiest day in their lives,” he said simply.  “And there are tears in their eyes.”
The cost of a new wheelchair starts at Rp 600,000 (about US$ 72).  For another $25, access ramps can be built around the family compound and onto the street.
Why not leave a legacy in Bali this Christmas by giving someone a start on their journey into the world?  Donations for wheelchairs and access ramps can be made through the Rotary Club of Bali Ubud.  Wheelchairs will be distributed through the Senang Hati Foundation.
You can make a donation through any bank in Indonesia to : Bank Niaga, Ubud, Bali Branch                                              Account Name: Rudana QQ Rotary                                               
Account Number: 047-01-09422-00-3
Be sure to note “Wheelchairs” on the bank transfer form.
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