Indonesians with a disability band together to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

A waiter named Fardlan who lives with a hearing impairment aptly captures the struggles of Indonesians with a disability during the pandemic.


“During the pandemic we’re obliged to wear a mask,” Fardlan told PAIR researchers.

“It’s such a constraint because it hinders my ability to read lip movements and communicate with the customer. Customers have difficulties in understanding my needs to read their lip movement whilst not everybody wants to take off their mask to speak to me.”

Fardlan’s story was shared by researcher Professor Becky Batagol of Monash University who spoke as part of the PAIR Summit discussion on disability.

This discussion was based on the report from the team of researchers called A resilient community: Tackling COVID-19’s impact on people with disability.

Expert presenters during the session were Professor Becky Batagol, COVID-19 research colleague Dr Mohammed Junaid from Universitas Hasanuddin and Dr Ishak Salim, co-founder of the Indonesian Disability Movement for Equality.

The session heard that the pandemic had caused “significant impact” on people with disability, with lost income, social isolation, and many struggling with a lack of accessible health information and education opportunities.

The three panellists presented evidence that highlighted how important it was for the views of those with a disability to be better represented in policy decisions.

Professor Batagol said people with disabilities “were not a priority” for the government at the start of the pandemic.

“In the emergency response program, conducted by the government, the information media disseminated by the government did not provide access to people with disability, especially for the blind and the deaf.

“There was no sign language for those with dyslexia and the information was presented full of text so it was very difficult for people with dyslexia to access the information.”

Professor Batagol said the move to online learning caused challenges for students with hearing impairments finding it difficult to understand online lectures.

“Because I’m hard of hearing, it’s difficult for me to understand what the lecturer said, especially when the lecturer explained it quickly,” Professor Batagol quoted one student as saying.

The discussion heard that unemployment or precarious employment was heightened during the pandemic for people living with a disability.

COVID-19 also introduced new physical and financial obstacles to accessing basic necessities, especially impacting upon disabled women and their families.

“For example, reduced access to healthcare… including reproductive healthcare for disable women,” Professor Batagol said, noting how some women were afraid to attend public health centres for fear of infection.

“But importantly there were many innovative and dynamic strategies developed by people with a disability to address the challenges they faced,” she said.

“People with a disability were creative and smart in the way they responded to the limitations of the pandemic.”

These included enhanced communication strategies and supporting others with a disability.

“We also noted that disabled persons organisations were extremely good at responding to the pandemic,” she said.

Professor Batagol noted people with disabilities could help by providing information for others with disabilities.

In the education sector, the session heard that many students with disabilities experienced difficulties, with many key activities that could only be done in schools and with teacher aides.

“So [students with disabilities] started getting bored and some lost their will to study,” said Dr Ishak Salim.

“If the government does not change this learning system… this will result in reluctance from these children and there is potential for them to lose their capability to reach any sort of prosperity or welfare.”

Fortunately there were also examples of positive adaptation.

The researchers highlighted key recommendations for governments, including:

  • More accessible communication methods.
  • Provision of basic food.
  • Targeted government subsidies which directly affect the home lives of women and people with a disability.
  • Collection of comprehensive data on people with a disability.
  • More support for disabled persons organisations.
  • Greater training opportunities for those who work in disabled persons organisations.
  • That the work of the national agency countermeasure should specifically include people with a disability and women with a disability in planning their policy.

“Some of these recommendations cost money, but many do not, such as clearer and more disable-friendly communication methods,” Professor Batagol said.

Dr Mohammed Junaid from the Universitas Hasanuddin talked of challenges in using masks for the disabled, particularly those with visual limitations.

He also noted the need for special translation services for communicating messages about services for those with a disability, with many different languages across Indonesia.

Dr Ishak Salim said it was important for all parts of the disabled community, particularly disabled women, to be part of the policy development process.

“I believe disability is an issue that is related to other issues when it intersects with other issues. Women with a disability have a much greater vulnerability,” he said.

“The effort to include women in the disability issue is also being done by our colleagues at a number of disability organisations.”

He noted that organisations such as the Association of Women with Disabilities in South Sulawesi were addressing not just women’s issues but also LGBTQ issues as well.

“In our assessment, it is the patriarchal attitude that is a challenge for children in these communities in not seeking an education,” he said.

“So these associations are helping open new horizons and opening up minds and voicing the rights of people with disabilities.”


Digital Communications Coordinator,
Australia-Indonesia Centre