One day I was on a bus, on my way to the next city. At one point, we passed a market, and the bus slowed down into a crawl. It was a hot day and the bus of course had no air conditioning. So while struggling to overcome the heat, I looked outside and tried to find fresh air through the gap in the window.
And then I saw this:
A girl, probably not older than fifteen years old (I am not good at guessing kid's age), walking on the side of the street, moving forward skillfully avoiding the crowds. On her back, she was carrying... a younger boy. Probably her brother. They looked alike. Both were wearing school uniform.
My mind started to wonder.
"Why is she carrying him?"
My eyes automatically went down to the boy's legs, and then I got it: the boy's legs were small as if they were only skin and bones.
I am guessing it's because of polio. (I could be wrong, but if it were polio, it is such a shame, since polio is a preventable desease).
My mind started to make up a story about the two kids: Maybe they're going back from school. the brother cannot walk, so the big sister everyday has to take him to school and pick him up afterwards. What a sweet big sister.
But sooner or later the brother will grow heavier, and probably bigger than the sister. What would they do then?
Why don't they use a wheelchair?
A few seconds after I asked that question, I realized how stupid that was.
Really: is this the kind of place where you can get around on a wheelchair? No.
Long time ago, my parents took me on a trip to Europe, and as we travel in some cities in Germany, from time to time I noticed people on wheelchairs, going about their business. I was a kid then, and that was a sight I almost never saw in the street of Jakarta.
So I asked my father: "How come there are more people on wheelchairs here? I don't see many of them in Jakarta..."
My dad was of course too busy with something else to care, so I did not have the answer then.
That time I foolishly thought, there must be a lot less number of disabled-people in Jakarta....
Oh how stupid.
You don't see them in Jakarta because THEY CANNOT GET AROUND.
They cannot go anywhere without help. That's why you don't see much of them.
This boy that I saw, could not go to school if he had no big sister to carry him.
I started to think about my world when I was a kid. What would happen if I were on a wheelchair? I thought about the neighbourhood where I lived: Would I be able to go to school by myself?
Could I go to the bookstore to buy my comic books by myself?
Could I go visit my friends and play?
On my own, I would not be able to go further than the front yard. Further than that, I would need help.
I thought about my school. There was no lift in my school. No ramp. Just stairs. How could I go to the classroom without any help? Impossible.
Elementary school, Junior high, High school, all stairs, stairs, stairs.
If I were that little boy, where would I be now?
As a saying goes, "A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members".
So what does this say about us, I wonder. We build our world without thinking about them much.
So whose fault is it? The government's fault, for not paying attention to the disabled?
Or is it our fault, for not giving enough pressure to the government to pay attention to our less-fortunate fellow-citizen?
I recalled one time when I was a student, walking with my mother, on the street near my father's office. There were people repairing the sidewalks on both side of the street at the time. I remember my mom once asked one of the people there:
"How come you did not make the sidewalk with ramps on both ends so it is easier for mothers with baby-strollers to use the sidewalk?"
And their answer was:
"Because then motorcyclists will ride on the sidewalks when the traffic is bad..."
That time I thought it was a sensible answer. Now not anymore.
(So, if you are a motorcyclist and you ride on the sidewalk to avoid the traffic, you may have contributed in making the life of people with disabilities more difficult.
Talk about the chaos theory's "the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas" ! )
For us, a sidewalk with no curb ramp is a minor annoyance. For people on wheelchairs, it's everything.
As I watched the boy bouncing about on his sister's back, I asked myself:
What kind of future will this boy have? Would he be able to go to college? Find a job? I really hope so.
And as I watched the girl carrying her little brother, I cannot help thinking on a more personal note. I am an only child. I never know how it feels to have a sibling. And after I saw this girl, I could only think of one thing:
I wish I had a big sister.