by Rio Helmi


Passing Sri Lestari at speed on the road from Jakarta to Bali, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was just another farmer who had rigged a scooter to some kind of cart. To any biker, the whole contraption appears completely outlandish and impossible.


The front wheel of the scooter has been removed and placed at the front of small steel cart to which it is welded, with the handlebars and steering column placed off centre. The actual bike looks headless. Then you see a person, huddled up in a wheelchair in an enormous red anorak. It’s all a wee bit Dali-esque until finally you zero in on a big beaming smile. And then you understand that the whole rig is completely balanced. It’s not impossible, it’s just practical. No fancy schmanzy. And it’s very Sri – a reflection of her attitude to life and what it has dished out to her.


Sri, 39, has been a paraplegic since she was injured in a motorcycle accident at the age of 23. The journey to where she is today has been a tough one. Initially there was the frustration not getting a complete medical picture from the doctors, who felt that withholding the truth from her would prevent “shock”. “I’d rather I was told directly, than to my family behind my back”.


Then there were long periods of trying everything under the sun, which in Java means going from mystic faith healer to mystic faith healer, “I’ve done the gamut. Having flower water rubbed all over my body. Drinking a mixture of incense ash and water. Spending time alone in the forest. You name it – (obviously) none of it works. Again, I would have been better off having a clear understanding of my medical condition right from the beginning.”. And then there were long years of dark depression.
sri-sunsetFor those of us who don’t have disabilities, there are details that we probably never think of. “Of course “diffabled” (differently abled) people need help. Take for example hygiene etc. But we can’t keep demanding from those around us, we need to figure out how to be more and more independent. If you just keep demanding it doesn’t solve the problem. Even if you have siblings, they have their own lives to get on with. Plus you can’t demand certain things from others who are not psychologically prepared – think about it: not everyone can deal with disposing of your urine and feces on a regular basis. Often it boils down to economy: for poor working class people just to purchase a toilet bowl and cistern (instead of cheap squat facilities) is a major expense.”


Sri learned the hard way that mindset is closely linked to activity. “At first when I just stayed at home and didn’t do much I would get stressed out, tension would build up between me and my parents. If you are just caught up in your own world you don’t think about the condition those close to you are in: are they too tired to help you etc. You just demand this and that. I just got caught up in fantasies. But when I met other people it helped open me up, and my mindset changed. And then when I learnt how to get out of bed myself, how to bathe myself etc, it was such freedom”.


Then Sri got a job as a social worker with United Cerebral Palsy Wheels for Humanity which now focuses mainly on providing wheelchairs for all types of “diffabled” people who need them. She acquired a modified scooter that could take her wheelchair in it without having to get in and out of the wheelchair, and which she could get in and out of by herself. “There are no buses in Indonesia which are wheelchair friendly – so I needed a solution”. The new Sri was launched: mobile, independent, active.



When Canadian filmmaker and journalist Peter Wall met her a couple of months ago on assignment she was assigned to be his ‘fixer’. Peter was so impressed with her he ended up doing a video on her. He asked her what her dream was. She said “I want to ride my bike from Jakarta to Bali, visiting people and raising awareness. Maybe sometime next year…” The boyish, bright-eyed Wall jumped in enthusiastically: “Why wait? Let’s do it in a couple of months.”  The project was put up on the Indiegogo crowd funding site, and TEDx Ubud organizers immediately responded positively when contacted about the project: ”bring her over to Ubud for the June 1st event!”. Soon everything tumbled into place.


On the road, Sri is careful but not timid. At home she travels up to 100 km a day for work. “When I first got out on the road, people would report back to my parents ‘your daughter is racing around on the roads’ (laughs) but it really depends on the road”. During the trip she rarely hit 60km. She was determined but not in a mad hurry. Her spirit infected the crew: Slamet who drove the support car, cameraman Gusti who did the entire 21 day trip with her, her younger brother Kabul, Peter who joined at various stages, others like myself who joined just for few legs of the journey: there was always good cheer and camaraderie. With Bali in plain sight across the straits, Peter asked Sri on the ferry if it had been a tough journey. Without hesitation she said “No, it has all been fun, fun, fun!”


But Sri has taken care of plenty of important business on the road too. She stopped in every major town to talk to the local branches of the Department of Social Affairs regarding their programs. She gave motivational talks to people with disabilities – “People with disabilities prefer to hear from others who have been through the same situation. People who don’t have disabilities talking to them don’t get through so much.”



And there have been sad moments. Like when she met a man in Kebumen who was injured and became a paraplegic  when his children were young. At one point his wife left him (they are back together now). “This man was dreaming of an electric chair. I told him it had limited application, he was better off using his arms, getting exercise – and that he should dream of getting a scooter like mine instead so it would increase his overall mobility much more!”.



Then there was fifty-six year old in Ngawi who has been paraplegic for 26 years. He lives with his parents who are getting old and incapable themselves. For the last two years this man has just stayed in bed, not just housebound. He told Sri he dreamed of just being able to crawl. Sri told him “Stop dreaming the impossible, you’re wasting time. Better dream the practical that will actually make your life better. Set up your house with straps etc to help you be more mobile. Please stop this useless dreaming. Dream usefully.”


As we ate our first meal after arriving in Bali,  I asked Sri what her new ‘practical dreams’ are, now that she had accomplished her Jakarta to Bali trip. “I would like to see more public access for disabled people in Indonesia. We have the law, but no implementation.”. After a brief pause she gave me an impish grin and added: “And I want to do a road trip right through Sumatra, and Sulawesi too. Maybe next year…”


for more on Sri:


Sri Lestari will be interviewed by Daniel Ziv at TEDxUbud this Saturday (however, tickets are sold out).


For more about TEdxUbud, see, an interview with TEDxUbud’s co-curator, Mila Shwaiko, about what goes into creating a TEDx event.

We’ll also be covering TEDxUbud for those who can’t be there in person – keep an eye on our blogs and videos.