By Tricia Mileham, UnitingWorld Experience Volunteer in West Timor
It is estimated that 1 in 7 people around the world are living with a disability, and that 20% of the world’s poorest people have a disability. Microfinance has proven to help people break the poverty cycle, yet only 0.5% of people living with a disability in the world’s poorest countries are currently registered as microfinance clients. There is obviously huge potential, and UnitingWorld and its partner Tanaoba Lais Manekat are two organisations working to make inclusion in microfinance a reality.
Over the past year the two organisations have designed and implemented an exciting new pilot project in Kupang, the capital city of West Timor, which aims to provide people with disabilities greater access to microfinance services. I have witnessed much of this journey as a UnitingWorld Experience Volunteer on placement in West Timor.
Beginning the journey towards inclusion for people with disabilities into microfinance programs is slow, but filled with hope – hope that barriers can be identified, hope that attitudes will change, and hope that improved understanding will lead to action to transform the lives of people living in poverty with a disability.
Over the last year I’ve seen TLM staff connect with local Disability Provider organisations and participate in training run by UnitingWorld. In conversation and training I have witnessed them move from medical or charity approaches to disability to a social model which highlights the importance of removing barriers in order to encourage participation of people with disabilities.
I’ve been privileged to participate in a couple of events run by TLM to build bridges with the community. Together we have gathered – people with physical or visual disabilities, village and church leaders, social workers or support personal as well as TLM staff trainers and marketing staff – to explore options for TLM to provide people with disabilities access to microfinance services and to learn from one another.
We learned that access was an issue as we saw a man with a severe physical disability climb up steps on his hands. We learned that putting out tables with a tray at lunch made it easier for many to manage their lunch. We learned to say our name and orientate the environment for people who could not see. The list goes on.
One of the most powerful activities at one event was creating a wall of boxes to symbolise the barriers – environmental, institutional and attitudinal – that people with disabilities can face. Afterwards we talked about how these barriers can be overcome. As we heard inspirational stories of success from those who had conquered academic success or who had established a business, I watched as TLM staff saw first-hand the power and potential people with disabilities have.
One story stands out to me. The musician we had organised for the morning was called away at short notice. The first people to arrive at this session were profoundly vision impaired. After introductions one of the men enquired to me, “Is there a keyboard in the room?” to which I replied, “Yes” and proceeded to escort him to a seat behind the keyboard. After a brief time orientating himself to the keyboard, he then began to play with skill and confidence.
Starting a new initiative like this pilot project can be difficult, especially when attitude and behavior change is needed. I have watched as staff struggle with their own attitudes toward people with disabilities. Again and again we grappled with the question of how much do we treat “them” as different because of their disability? What is fair? What is realistic? What will create “victim” mentality or “abuse” from others or have positive and negative “social effects”? And of course there are always many unseen factors in a culture that an onlooker doesn’t see.
At a time when integration of special needs students into regular schools was gaining momentum in Australia, I worked as an itinerant support teacher to assist this process across three districts. “Normalization” – an interesting word in itself – meant trying to keep programs and processes as close as possible to that of others, adjusting the environment or attitude or offering access support.
In the same way, discussion for this pilot program in West Timor has seen the discussion swing from “Let’s provide no interest loans because it’s too difficult for them” and “They need adjusted loan rates to sell the product because they are used to getting lower rates from the government or banks” to “To be sustainable the product should be the same as existing loans.”
Another picture which will stay engraved in my mind is that of a tall man with very low vision, standing in front of our office at the edge of one of Kupang’s busiest streets. Behind him stood another man with his hand on the back of the man in front, behind him another man doing the same and behind him another man. All of the men are blind, and it is peak hour. Watching the men cross that street reminded me of the courage, determination, skill and faith people with disabilities have. I also now have a new vision to put to the saying “the blind leading the blind.”
The journey to inclusion is slow and has many hurdles, but it is a privilege to be part of the process, as together we take small steps to making a difference. I am thankful to UnitingWorld staff for their vision, financial and human support, and faith in a God who loves all and challenges us to do the same.
Tricia and her husband David have spent several months with UnitingWorld’s partner TLM in West Timor as a part of an Experience Volunteer placement.