Over the past few years, there has been a small, but growing number of representations of the deaf community in the mainstream media. From sign language interpreters in news programs, the rise of deaf public figures and social media influencers, to a groundbreaking musical production that feature deaf actors as their leads. It was an exciting realization that these people can excel at what they do, and it was even more exciting to see what Bengkala has in store.

What they had, as it turns out, was eye-opening. As we sat down and chatted with the head of the village Pak Arpan, who also acts as the representative of the community in this meeting, it is very clear that there is a very strong sense of community here. It resembles less of a group of people living in rural Bali and more of a large, tight-knit family who love and care for one another. With the largest deaf-mute population centralized in one place like this, there is a high likelihood that this minority group is marginalized –or worse, commoditized by greedy people who intend to take advantage of their disabilities for financial gains. It has become their responsibility to embrace and look out for them as families do. “These people are a part of our community and they are not a spectacle,” Pak Arpan said, “We won’t let them.”

Local people conversing in Kata Kolok.

The people of Bengkala do not only express this sentiment in words either, but through action as well. Even though only 43 people identified as deaf-mute (also known as the kolok) out of the total population of 3,039, over 80% of them can understand and communicate using the local sign language, the kata kolok. The language is no longer only used to accommodate the deaf-mute people, but has since become a big part of their culture. Bengkala is also the birthplace of Janger Kolok, a traditional Balinese performance with its dance and music performed entirely by the deaf-mute. Janger kolok is not only groundbreaking in its true form, but it is also an important platform for its performers to express themselves in a field that is usually very limited, sometimes even off-limits, for them.

Sometimes it is easy forget that these disabilities do not mean that they are incapable of learning and growing; it just means that they need a different ways to do it. In effort to provide more equal opportunities, the government has established an inclusive elementary school with a curriculum that is tailored to their needs. One of the highlights of this inclusive school is that students are taught three sign languages; the local kata kolokBahasa Isyarat Indonesia, and International Sign Language. That way, the deaf-mute people of Bengkala is not only able to assimilate seamlessly with the rest of the society, but also equipped to thrive in the outside world.

Pak Kanta, the Kolok language expert, demonstrates a word in local sign.

However, these efforts towards better inclusion are only just beginning. Currently, the Bengkala community is gunning for capacity development workshops, especially in household and financial management. They are also aiming for the establishment of an inclusive high school, so that the education does not stop at the primary level. It is truly unfortunate that many kolok youths are unable to continue their studies because the regular school curriculum aren’t able to accommodate their needs.

There is a lot to be learned for the kolok that they don’t have the access to just yet. It is up to us, who have the privilege and resources, to share what we have and join the cause for inclusiveness in the society. Who knows, maybe we will live to see a time when sign language is simply a part of our day-to-day life and these disabilities are no longer the determining factors for better opportunities –or lack thereof, in life.

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