What it was like to get a driver’s license in Indonesia as a deaf person

When I was 17 years old, I lived in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, as an international student in high school. Seventeen is the typical age to obtain a driver’s license, as well as vote, work, etc. My father told me that I would get a license very quickly, even though I had heard of rumors that Dutch colonizers had established a law that deaf people could not drive legally. (However, today, they can obtain a driver’s license.) My father did not care whether I would drive illegally, while my mother was heartbroken about his risky decision. He decided when I would get my license.

That great day, my father and I took a cab to the local police department where people get their licenses. Traffic was terrible on the way there, and it irritated us. In Jakarta, drivers are aggressive and selfishly argue any small move in the road. Probably worse than in Vietnam, where tourists complain about crazy drivers, Jakarta is famous for its deadly traffic jams. Every year, hundreds of thousands of drivers die as a result of a fatal road accident. Police officers have trouble enforcing the rules of conduct because Jakarta’s traffic is too cumbersome to handle. This bustling capital is more crowded and more massive than the city of New York.

Upon arrival, the police station was full of annoying people. My father and I asked a police officer for advice on where to start and he gave me a list of things to complete to get my license. I began the process by having a fitness test. My father urged me not to use sign language because he feared that would prevent me from obtaining a license. The tester asked a group of us to do different exercises, such as jumping and standing on one leg, which was easy because I was a member of the cross country team. Then the tester administered an eye test. When she pointed at me, I started using sign language to communicate. She filled out a form and gave it to me. She wrote tuna rung, meaning “deaf” in Indonesian.

After leaving for the next step, a police officer checked the form I was given. He said okay and was aware that I was deaf, but he did not care. Then an employee gave me an immigration form. We found a table and filled out the form. A woman appeared and asked us not to finish filling out the form. She said we could continue. I thought, “What are you doing?”

Next we went to a counter where I was supposed to take a driving test. But we bribed the employee; she accepted our money and allowed me to skip the test. Then we headed to another counter where I was photographed. After that, we sat in a room filled with abandoned motorcycles and waited several hours, which made us impatient and frustrated. After several hours, I finally received my driver’s license.

The next day we decided to take a vacation in Bali, an Indonesian island popularized by Australian tourists. When we got there, I rented a motorcycle without any instruction or insurance. I had to figure to ride it on my own. I crossed mountains and highways as if I was flying with happiness. (Although, I almost got in an accident because monkeys were chasing me and trying to jump me through the mountains.) My mother would have killed me.

Photos by Akshay Mishra