Joãozitu dos Santos (Image/Robert Baird)

DILI, 04 December 2019 (TATOLI) – Joãozitu dos Santos’ family convinced him he would never find love.

“My family didn’t believe that I could get married because of my disability,” he said.

As a young boy, polio deformed Joãozitu’s left leg, and weakened his right arm. He’s suffered discrimination his entire life. But the jibes that hurt the most came closest to home: his family also told him he’d never be able to provide for his family – even for himself.

“But I told to myself to have confidence and self-trust, and always think that whatever you want, go and get it, period,” he said.

Speaking to TATOLI on the UN’s International Day of Disabled Persons, Joãozitu shows us the cane he uses to get about Dili, and the custom-made shoe insert the helps cradle his deformed foot. He speaks with determination about overcoming his obstacles – but admits his condition has been overwhelming at times.

“Before I became involve in a disabilities organisation, I never went out in public, although sometimes I used to hang out with some of my neighbours who understood my condition,” he said.

He says he also suffered tremendous bullying at school, and the taunts were one of the reasons he dropped out of university.

“Because they think we are different, it sometimes make us people with a disability discriminate [against] ourselves,” he said.

In 2006, he founded Timor’s national disabled person’s organisation, RHTO (Organisasaun Ra’es Hadomi Timor), an advocacy and support network. He said it changed his outlook almost immediately.

“The discrimination happen because of the mindset, [and] this mentality needs to change now. Yet to remove all of the [this] negative thinking, we have to show, to prove our capacity, our ability,” he said.

“Some people have negative interpretation about us, [but] it is just their interpretation. They will never know us because they are not disabled and they don’t live their lives like [we do].”

“And we should also [remember] that it’s the differences in life that makes everything beautiful,” he said.

According to the 2015 census, there are more than 38,000 people in Timor-Leste with a disability (53% male and 47% female). This represents 3.4% of the male population and 3.1% of the female population. The most common disability is eyesight (around 2 per cent of the population), followed by mobility problems, hearing and intellectual or mental impairments.

This group has poorer educational outcomes, and are more likely to be the victims of violence — particularly women.

Recently, the government passed a law to “accelerate” the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In a video message, PM Taur Matan Ruak told the delegates is committed to reform, in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

“To talk about an accessible and equal future, I appeal to the public to support the work of the [RHTL] by providing opportunities for them…to achieve the objective of ‘not leaving anyone behind’,” he said.

Joãozitu dos Santos said the ratification of the CPRD would be a game-changer for the lives of people with a disability in Timor-Leste.

“This will provide the opportunity for people with disabilities to sit in the parliament, the opportunity to access to many government programs. You also can use the convention to advocate [that] the government better consider the needs of people with disabilities,” he said.

Joãozitu ending up proving his family wrong in many ways, particularly now that he’s happily married.

“That’s why I said to them: it’s better to never say ‘impossible’… If we believe in God, nothing is impossible,” he said.

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