Will people with mental and intellectual disabilities go on a rampage in the election booth as they cast their votes?

Indonesians will go to the polls to elect their President and member of Parliament on April 13 (overseas) and April 17 (in Indonesia). Of the total 193 million eligible voters about 1,247,730 are people with disabilities. Of this number about 332,728 are people with mental and intellectual disabilities who have become registered voter.

Disability advocates believed that the number should be much higher given that data from the National Statistic Bureau reveals that there are about 22 million Indonesians live with disabilities. Despite this, people with disabilities have received the news positively about both the eligibility of people with mental and intellectual disability to vote, and that a much higher number of people with disabilities are able to vote compare to the previous elections. It is hoped that the increase in numbers also means the government ensures their accessibility to vote.

The increase number of people with disabilities and granting people with mental and intellectual disabilities to vote has in fact generated criticisms, especially from the opposition. Those who are critical accuse the government of exploiting people with mental and intellectual disabilities to vote in favour of President Joko Widodo who is running for his second term. Thus, public debate around the participation of people with mental and intellectual disabilities in the election is an interesting one to discuss. This article is my observation on public attitudes towards people with mental and intellectual disabilities.

I work as a psychologist at a village public health clinic or Puskesmas in the city of Yogyakarta. Two weeks ago, my supervisor told me that our clinic received a visit from an election official asking for advice and tips on what they need to do when voters with mental and intellectual disabilities are going on a rampage when they cast their vote at the polling station on election day.

To be honest I was confused and could not offer an answer straight away. I cannot recall both from my studies at university and from my professional experience what we need to do to help settle people with mental disabilities when they get angry or going on a rampage.

My supervisor said to me “You can talk directly to the election officers, they will have another meeting here on Saturday”. I feel a huge sense of relief because it gives me more time to think about the question and what answer I should provide.

When I had a bit more time to think through the question, I realised that there is something wrong with the question that the election officers had asked. It seems to me that they are nervous about having people with mental and intellectual disabilities cast their votes in their polling station, which probably had never happened before. I was perplexed and question why they think that people with mental and intellectual disability will get upset and lose control when they are at the polling station? Before I begin to formulate my answer, I started thinking through the reason why such questions were asked and using my past experience I think I know the answer.

Stigma towards mental and intellectual disabilities

When I did my internship at a mental health hospital in Lawang, East Java I met James, who was hospitalised for schizophrenia. I heard from his carer that during his stay at the hospital he had a good attitude and was well-behaved. He communicates and interacts with others using good manners and so it would have been hard for people who met him to notice that he has schizophrenia.

I had a chance to spend time with James and we become good friends. He told me in one of our first meetings about the benefit of drinking green coffee to help lose weight and he also told me about a shop nearby where I can get it. When he mentioned green coffee, I thought James must be talking about green tea but he mixed them up because of his condition.

A few days after that conversation I had with James, I walked around the small-sized city and saw the small shop exactly as what James had told me and they sell green coffee! I was perplexed that James remembered correctly the name of the shop, its location and all of his description about the shop was also correct.

I felt I was in the wrong and laughed at myself. Not only because I did not know about the existence of green coffee, but the worst thing was that I had underestimate James. I doubted James description about the green coffee and did my own Internet research only to find out that everything James said was correct.

My doubting of James’ story and my assumptions about him is what many of us in Indonesia think of people with disabilities. We call it stigma. We let ourselves think of and interact with disabled people using our own prejudices and doubts. We see people with disabilities as not capable of doing things on their own and of making decision!

The question that the election officers asked of my supervisor I am sure comes from this stigma about disabled people. There is this perception among officials and the community in general that people with mental and intellectual disabilities can lose control, go on a rampage, get upset, destroy things and so on and so forth. No wonder that the election commission are so nervous about having people with disabilities in their voting booth.

Will people with mental and intellectual disabilities be going on a rampage on election day?

In Indonesia, people with mental and intellectual disabilities are called ‘orang gila’ or crazy people. Gila or crazy in Indonesia is understood as a situation when someone lose their mind, or consciousness which lead them unable to do things under control.

People forget or maybe they do not understand that mental and intellectual disabilities have a wide spectrum and their condition differs from one person to the other.

Not all mental health problem cause someone to lose their consciousness.

The symptoms of schizophrenia are different from depression, and depression is also different to bipolar and bipolar is different to panic attack, which is also different from anxiety. But in Indonesia, they tend to think that everyone who has any one of this as ‘orang gila’.

To experience one of this condition does not mean that one loses his or her identity as a human being, including their rights to making decision, to participate and take part in the election or in any other socio-religious and political activity.

So, going back to the question from the election official about what to do if people with mental and intellectual disabilities go on a rampage when they cast their vote, I will say that so long as they prepared for the logistic and arranged the polling station to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities it is very unlikely that they will go on a rampage.

Disability advocates have for a long period raised their concern that the community including government officials underestimate the rights of people with disabilities in political activity and even prevent and limit their access to participate in the election arguing that they do not have the capacity to make decision hence they are not capable to elect their President or members of Parliament.

A voter used his right to vote candidates.
When Indonesian voters went to the polls yesterday, by many accounts their main concern was finding a corruption-free candidate to support. But for many citizens with disabilities in the country, just getting to the polling booth was a struggle. (Photo from Tim Mann’s 2014 article about disabled citizens’s struggle to participate in previous elections)

Fortunately, in 2018, the National election commission stipulates that it is only with the recommendation from health professionals that people with disabilities will not be eligible to vote.

Having said that, I would ask my fellow Indonesian citizens that instead of being nervous when they see people with disabilities in your voting area, we better ensure that anyone with mental and intellectual disabilities can come to the election booth to cast their votes. We need to also help ensure that the election officials have made accessible arrangements to accommodate the need of voters with disabilities.

We all need to remember that people with disabilities have exactly the same rights as their fellow citizens to decide the future of Indonesia as they envision it to be. It is a right that is guaranteed in the Indonesian constitution and is granted under the UNCRPD, which Indonesia had ratified in 2011 and the 2016 Indonesia Disability Law.

This article is originally published in Bahasa Indonesia on the 14th of April 2019 entitled ‘Bagaimana Mengatasi ODJG Ngamuk di TPS saat Coblosan?‘ by Lya Fahmi, Psychologist at a Community Health Centre (Puskesmas Gondokusuman 2) Yogyakarta, Central Java: https://mojok.co/lya/esai/bagaimana-mengatasi-odgj-yang-ngamuk-di-tps-saat-coblosan/


Author Bio: Lya Fahmi was born in Sleman on the 23rd of September 1989. She graduated from the Faculty of Psychology and is active as a writer in several online media sites. She currently work as a Psychologist at a Community Health Centre (Puskesmas Gondokusuman 2) in Yogyakarta, Central Java Indonesia.


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