Reaching out to extremely handicapped people

Peter van Dijk,

Microfinance Focus, May 02, 2011: Last night at about 3 o’clock in the night I woke up and could not sleep anymore. At around 4 o’clock a singing bird started to tsjirp, short and repeatedly, as if it was calling a partner or a friend to start a nice song before the sun would come up, it was still pitch dark. But no other bird tsjirped, whistled back, so it sounded a bit like a bird lamenting.

The tsjirping made me doze a bit and it was as if a curtain was opened to a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago; my wife was driving our car very slowly in a cluster where there are many tailors in Jakarta. We had just taken some shirts of a very light cotton that does not make me sweat so much in the humid heat of the tropics. The road was bad, it had rained earlier and left and right there were motorbikes and pedestrians passing by. Some 30 meters in front of us, at the right hand side, we both saw what looked like a woman who was terribly deformed. Her face was covered with long skins and bumps; her hair was dry and came out between the chunks of skin. I cannot say else than that her head looked like an awfully big and moving heap of animal waste. She had white plastic gloves on and was begging. It was at least as terrible as I remembered from the movie “The Elephant man” in which John Hurt acted amazingly as a man with a terribly deformed head and back. My wife and I did not dare to look her way as we slowly approached in the car. Knowing my wife and the fact that the woman was on her side of the car I did not say anything. When I give money to begging people suffering from leprosy she gets a bit afraid. The woman was so badly deformed that I did not even ask her to open the window so that I could throw some money out towards her. I know that my wife is also a bit superstitious and she might think that even the air around the woman would affect us. Don’t get me wrong; my wife is a socially motivated woman, a lawyer by training as myself, and we undertake specific activities for under-privileged people. So we chose to ignore the terribly deformed woman. The car passed by very slowly and when we passed the woman I looked from under my eyebrows to the right. My wife and I kept silent and did not refer to the event.

One sees such terribly deformed people once a while in Indonesian cities, and I have seen them all over Asia and Africa in countries with massive poverty.

I lay still in the night and felt guilty. Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I at least greet her and give her some money? Why didn’t I get out of the car and try to make a conversation. My wife would protest and say that other people would find that weird of a foreigner (“Buleh”), maybe complain, and I don’t know enough Indonesian to really have a conversation with the woman.

The woman moved and spoke like she was a normally intelligent lady. Realising that, I felt that she must have a terribly miserable life. So much misunderstanding, so much frustration, sadness. And of course, as for all of us, she must have the same kind of longing for love, affection, caresses as we have. Whoever would caress her, embrace her when she is sad, when she cries, who would laugh with her close to her face in moments that she maybe feels a bit joyful? Would her parents do that, her brothers or sisters?

Many of us, Microfinance practitioners, academics and supporters feel sometimes that we are doing heroic work, mirroring ourselves in the likes of Professor Yunus, SEWA’s Ela Bhatt, ASA’s Mr. Choudhury or others. We see our work as maybe one of the most important tools in fighting against poverty and against the marginalization of certain citizens. The marginalization of people in many cultures goes hand in hand with their unavoidable absolute poverty; this is so for many rural people, women, youth, unemployed, elderly and also handicapped people. But over the last nearly twenty years I have never seen a deformed person as a client in the offices of an MFI, I’ve never seen a picture on a MFI website or at a MF conference exposition smiling to the photographer, shaking hands with some famous man or woman or by the MFI director.

In many cultures, maybe in all humanity, people are a bit afraid of seriously deformed people. One avoids them, some think it brings bad luck to touch them or even look at them. There are even people, entire societies who seem convinced that such people have been punished by the Supreme Universal Being for bad deeds in earlier lives. I know that in such societies parents feel so embarrassed if they get children with serious defects that they hide, kill or abandon them, in silence. May I, should I, assume that all my co-citizens know very well, if they just stand still and think a bit, that physically deformed people are individual humans just the same as we are. They are just very, very unfortunate, disadvantaged. These seriously deformed people have been victims of exceptional accidents or illnesses, some curable, some corrigible, some not. And many such diseases must hurt unimaginably, physically and mentally, every day and every night. And my wife and I did nothing when a moment presented itself to do something really good. I felt my conscience complaining. Have you, readers, had similar moments?

As people who read articles of mine or contributions in debates, they know that I do not support MFIs that want to operate as a self-sustainable financial business undertake all kinds of other activities as part of their daily operations. An MFI that wants to be “a bank for the unbanked” should focus on integrating all so far unbanked regions and people into banking in which such citizens have access to professional regulated services and where, in case of bad performance, these customers have effective access to legal redress and financial compensation as any other bank client. An MFI should not mix its owners, management, systems, staff etc. to also provide business development services, healthcare services, special social services and so on. An MFI should leave that to other specialists; it can promote such other specialists to their clients yes and link each other.

However, an MFI can organize initiatives to reach out to co-citizens that have been terribly hurt by life. MFIs and MF programs can in my imagination easily organize events to identify and invite such people at MFIs in efforts to also integrate them into the client community. MFIs could ask staff and clients to introduce them to such exceptionally handicapped and marginalized people and show them that they are part of human society as we all are. That they are welcome as customers as well. Or do some MFIs have a policy to avoid entrance to seriously handicapped and/or deformed people? Do they know that few or no clients would like to stand in line for a MF counter behind or in front of such a person?

I would be very grateful to know what you think, or maybe tell me about initiatives that you already undertake. Please write to me via the contact address. Its management will forward your messages to me. And remember, a taboo is only such because you, you chose it to be.

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