Fighting for the Rights of People with Disabilities in Indonesia


By Rebecca Berman

Lawyer. Advocate. Leader. At 41 years old, Risnawati (Risna) Utami has many roles which support the rights of people with disabilities in her home country of Indonesia. Risna is the founder and director of Ohana, an organization that strengthens social justice and social welfare for Indonesians with disabilities. Risna is also the Chair of the Indonesian National Consortium for Disability Rights (INCDR).

Having contracted polio at the age of four, Risna uses a wheelchair, and crutches for walking short distances. With her parents’ support, she earned a degree in International Health Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and a law degree from an Indonesian University.

Each school provided vastly different experiences. In Indonesia she crawled up and down four flights of stairs to reach her classes. “I felt the professors didn't care about me,” she said. Risna had an accessible van at Brandies, in which “I felt like a real human being.” 

After returning to Indonesia, Risna started Ohana. The organization has worked with Handicap International since 2010, to strengthen the legal rights of people with disabilities. Ohana is a part of the INCDR, which collaborated with Handicap International to create a book that assessed how the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) would change life for Indonesians with disabilities.

More than 50 Disabled Persons Organizations, University Research Center and Civil Society Organizations, including Ohana, spent nearly a year completing the book, which was given to the Ministry of Social Affairs and to two major human rights institutions in Indonesia. “The government officials were welcoming the initiative of the INCDR,” said Risna. Since Indonesia ratified the CRPD in 2011, Risna noted that they appreciated the book since it “can be used as a reference for supporting the implementation of the UN CRPD in terms of policy and program implementation.”

The CRPD has already made a difference for Indonesians. Opportunities for people with disabilities to be involved with legislation have expanded, she said. Before, there was “no access, no possibility to join the city planning,” nor access to discourse about budgeting. Personally, the CRPD gave Risna the chance to be on the Yogyakarta city planning council. In this role, she aims to increase the amount of accessible public space by 10% every year. Risna knows that implementation of the CRPD in her own country will take time, but she envisions that Indonesian’s accessibility in education, employment, access to health care, and other related rights will be a lot better in the future

Risna shared her story at the June 2014, Conference of States Parties to the CRPD in New York, where many turned their attention to the fact that the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify the treaty. Indonesians are aware that a few U.S. Senators are opposed to the CRPD due to concerns with sovereignty and other issues.

Risna wishes she could tell U.S. Senators to ratify the CRPD. “The U.S. is the pioneer of implementing the CRPD principles” said Risna, and has success stories that “should be shared with the world.”