Approaching noon on a day at the end of July 2011, at least eighty pairs of eyes were fixed to a man at the far front of Hotel Le Meridien, Jakarta ballroom. All strive to catch the phrases coming out of the man’s lips. Focusing their eyes. Moving their eardrums closer. Reading the man’s lips. All had been done but not successful. Standing closest to this man, I had to admit: I completely did not understand what was said by Mr Afrizar Z, a man with hearing impairment and also chairman of GERKATIN, an organization promoting welfare for people with hearing impairment in Indonesia.

Although he was offered for interpretation help, he insisted to speak on his own. Sweeping across the ballroom, I saw that most of the faces showing similar expression: lost. That was an emergency. Considering what Mr. Afrizar conveyed was an important input to the workshop.

Unexpectedly, he handed the microphone to the interpreter. “Well, now you can feel yourself the difficulties I had when trying to communicate? Especially when what is delivered is far more important than who is delivering?”

Opportunity. That was what persons with disabilities wanted. Unfortunately, due to lack of common understanding, they received more sympathy then what they need.

Emanuela Pozzan, disability expert from the International Labour Organization (ILO), Geneva, Switzerland even commented that it was common people who actually need rehabilitation. She argued that our focus of concerns of donations/charity should be shifted to recognition of rights.

Respect is one thing, supporting and empowering is another thing. So far I was too proud to respect minorities, including persons with disabilities, without ever giving a chance to myself to help them empowered.

The workshop goal was not easy: to design an action plan to improve employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in Indonesia. According to some participants, this kind of workshop was the first time. Never before persons with disabilities had the chance to sit together and discussing such issues with policy makers (government), promoter of persons with disabilities’ rights (NGOs) and those with the opportunities to empower persons with disabilities (employers).

I was mandated to create an appropriate atmosphere of learning and working that would allow equal opportunities to the eighty participants – a quarter of whom were persons with disabilities. Soon I realized, my knowledge was almost zero. And this was as the result of my ignorance. Apparently, my ignorance was my disability.

In fact, with little modifications and more preparation, the workshop which I feared to fall apart turned out to be quite productive. Moving away the focus on sophisticated methodologies, I brought the workshop back to its essence: to share knowledge and to discuss.

Interpreters for deaf participants. Assistants for the visually impaired participants to move. And so on. Not complicated, just a little more effort.

And that effort was fruitful. At least according to some of the participants. “Finally my voice was heard,” a pat on the shoulder by a visually impaired participant soon to be one the most precious gift of this workshop. I realized, there was still much work following this workshop, but let the appropriate stakeholders work on that.

To me, opening my arms for opportunities is much more beneficial than just my sympathetic wallet. Not charity, but an opportunity.

How about you?


15 Tips Designing and Facilitating Events with Participants with Disabilities

Endro Catur | | @endrocn

  1. Identify and get to know participants, especially those with disabilities: type of disability and how many. Ask for particular needs so they are able to participate actively.
  2. Do not focus on participants’ difference, but focus to provide equal opportunities. Do not convey too much sympathy for participants with disabilities. To my experience, on the second day, participants started to ‘forget’ this and focus more on activities.
  3. Create dynamic and fun atmosphere. Balance the portion of knowledge-sharing sessions (lectures, presentations, etc.) and discussions. Participants with visual impairment can concentrate more to hear a lecture, while deaf participants will easily exhausted if they have to continuously read lips.
  4. Agree with the terminology: disable, persons with disabilities or difable. Persons with disabilities tend to be sensitive to this.
  5. Focus on essence – not methodology – to enable all participants to participate and contribute. Avoid methodologies that require visually impaired participants and those who use cane/wheelchair to move frequently or quickly.
  6. In knowledge-sharing sessions, prepare running text and/or translators for the deaf participants. Make sure the sound system produces clear sound, adequately pitched and not echoing too much especially for the visually impaired participants. Consider not using stage, especially if one of the speakers are visually impaired or using cane/wheelchair.
  7. For group discussion sessions, create small groups (maximum 8 people, 6 people ideal) to provide opportunities for all participants to speak. Consider not using round table and prioritize on cluster of chairs.
  8. Inform speakers, participants and facilitators to speak slowly, clearly and loudly. Persons who are deaf sometimes have to rely on lip-reading to catch what people are saying.
  9. Create a room layout with a straight and clear path (move away cables, objects that block, etc.) especially for the visually impaired participants and those who use of cane/wheelchair.
  10. To determine location within the room (e.g. when dividing groups), specify a spot as a reference point. From this point, the facilitator explains the location of the group using clear instructions, especially for the visually impaired participants. For example “on my left hand”, “on my right hand, corner of the room”, and so on. This method can also be used to inform the exit, dining room, etc.
  11. Except for different purposes, whenever possible spread participants with disabilities in each group.
  12. During group discussions, participants with hearing impairment should be accompanied by interpreters unless it is possible to provide a running text.
  13. Inform all participants, especially speakers, presenters and facilitators, to also describe the meaning of images and pictures, especially if they are part of the content.
  14. Participants who are assisted by interpreters need more time to receive and digest the conversation. Before starting a session, make sure all participants understood the instructions. For example, start a question-answer session only when participants who are deaf completely understand so they have equal opportunities to raise question/comments.
  15. Make sure toilets, dining hall, mosque, etc. support participants, especially those who use cane/wheelchair.