September 12, 2012
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Siriyawathi Perera says that her neighbors in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, ostracized her 23-year-old son, Malith Perera, while he was growing up because he has Down syndrome.
Many fear that their children will catch a disease from him, Perera says. Loneliness and the inability to communicate what he was feeling caused him to respond angrily toward his family, many times becoming violent.
“We took him to so many doctors,” Perera says. “Some said there was nothing they could do. Others gave medicines that made him very sleepy.”
But today, Perera says her son is no longer reliant on medicine. He has learned to use words and gestures with his family to alert them to his needs and feelings. In turn, his parents and younger brother have learned to read his body language.
Perera attributes these changes in her son’s life to the Theatre Institute for Disability Oriented Research and Advocacy, an institute in Colombo that runs a daily program on weekdays for differently abled people. Young men and women receive dance therapy, learn puppetry, sing, take instrument lessons, dabble in art, act in dramas, learn basic reading and writing skills and acquire vocational skills.
“He doesn’t get as angry as he used to,” says Perera, looking fondly at her son who shyly leads visitors to show off his artwork at the institute. “And now, I understand how to read his body language so that I don’t make him angry.”
In a society where many still misunderstand and stigmatize disabilities, the Theatre Institute for Disability Oriented Research and Advocacy offers disabled people a way to discover their abilities and express themselves through the performing arts. Directors take a personalized approach to drama therapy to engage students formerly lumped into categories according to their type of disability. Combined with vocational training, the therapy helps students develop personal and practical skills to increase their participation in society. Families note transformations in their children, as activists call for more enabling environments like the institute to transform societal attitudes toward disability.
There are nearly 1 million people with disabilities in the country, according to a 2003 study by the Sri Lanka Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare. Sri Lanka’s population, more than 19 million at the time, is now about 21 million, according to the World Bank.
In addition to the social stigma disabled people face in Sri Lankan society, they have few opportunities for gainful employment, with the study categorizing them among the poorest in the country.
The study also notes that people with disabilities face exclusion from social and recreational activities, with as little as 6 percent attending musical shows, concerts, cinema and other forms of entertainment. Thirty-three percent never go out with the rest of the family, and the same proportion have neither been to a wedding nor taken part in community activities and festivals.
The Theatre Institute for Disability Oriented Research and Advocacy aims to change that.
Its acronym, THIDORA, means “three doors” in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka’s largest people group, says Rohana Deva, the institute’s chairman and artistic director.
“Based on the teachings of Buddhism, we believe that the three doors into our being – mind, body and words – have to be brought under control,” he says, adding that this leads to success in communication.
The institute uses dance, music, drama and art in various forms to draw out the passions, talents and abilities of its differently abled students, while teaching them how to control their emotions and to express themselves in ways that others can understand.
In one room of the institute, a group of 15 students dance traditional dance steps to the beat of a drum accompanied by chanting.
After a short respite, they move on to a play about why stealing is wrong. The instructors walk among the students, guiding them through this impromptu drama and stopping to discuss the plot’s action and to ask for the students’ response.
Deva and his wife, Ramani Damayanthi, stumbled accidentally into this field of special education 25 years ago after Wolfgang Stange, the director of the Amici Dance Theatre Company in London and an artist who had worked with differently abled people for many years, commended Deva for casting what he thought was a disabled actor in a play Deva directed.
“I immediately felt a deep sense of shame,” recalls Deva, who had actually equipped his skinniest actor with crutches to play the role. “I hadn’t given the crutches a second thought. To me, it was only a prop. But to Wolf, it meant something more, and I was ashamed that I hadn’t seen it too.”
That ignited a journey for Deva that eventually led to the institute. With years of experience in street dramas and theater groups, he began to develop short dramas and physical exercises for people with mental and physical disabilities. Soon, he and his wife were traveling across the country to conduct drama workshops every weekend in schools, orphanages, community halls and special care facilities.
“At first, it was very difficult for me,” Damayanthi says. “I went along just to assist him. But soon I was drawn to the young people. They are so open and so vulnerable. They would be waiting longingly until we turned up, eager to learn, just waiting to get something into their lives.”
Over the last 20 years, the husband and wife team has conducted more than 1,000 workshops and trained hundreds of others to work with differently abled people.
“Drama therapy is not very complex,” Deva says. “The therapy comes from taking an issue or a piece of music or a part of a play to bring out feelings, the underlying emotions.”
E.K.A. Jayamanne says that the institute has transformed her 19-year-old daughter, Sachini Ruwanthika, who has been deaf since a bad fever as a child. Though Ruwanthika can’t hear a single note, Damayanthi trained her to dance by counting the beats. She has learned various types of dance, including the traditional styles of Sri Lanka.
“She used to be so scared of meeting people and withdrawn and angry before she came here,” Jayamanne says. “We tried to place her in so many different schools, but she would cry or sit in a corner and not participate. Now, she gets upset if she misses even one day at THIDORA.”
Ruwanthika has learned various arts during the nearly nine years she has attended the institute.
“It’s wonderful to see her perform and to see the beautiful crafts she makes,” her mother says. “I always knew she had a lot of talent.”
But the biggest change has been personal.
“I am most thankful for the changes I see in her,” her mother says. “She used to be very selfish, expecting us to always put her needs first. But now, she helps everyone here. And at home too, she helps me more than her sisters. She laughs and is happy.”
Deva bases his work on the philosophy that each person is different, so he needs to find the appropriate teaching method for each student or workshop participant.
But it’s not always easy while students learn how to express themselves.
“I have got[ten] hit, spat on, bitten, pushed and pummeled too many times to count,” Deva says.
Often it’s the newcomers, he says. But even those people he has worked with for 20 years can get angry or violent.
“At times like this, even patience is not enough,” he says. “You need to have a deep love that is willing to put up with anything.”
The institute’s doors are open to all ages and all kinds of special needs. It currently has 48 students, ranging from 6 to 42 years old.
Deva says he uses the word “children” to mean someone with a childlike mind and pure heart.
“When a child first comes here, they are scared and unsure,” Deva says. “So we give them a lot of space, and I observe them very carefully, sometimes over a few weeks.”
Damayanthi adds that many of the children have been misdiagnosed, so it’s important not to identify them by the labels of autism or Down syndrome.
“You don’t need special skills to understand these children,” Damayanthi says. “If we can love them, if we can be patient with them, if we are wiling to spend time to understand, then we can begin to understand them.”
In addition to drama and acting, the institute offers its students dance, puppetry, art, music, singing and vocational skills.
“The vocational training is done for more than just earning money,” Deva says. “It’s very useful for developing the coordination between the brain and their hands. The practice of coordination help[s] in everything else they do – from buttoning a shirt to more complicated tasks.”
Many of the students have won awards and commendations for their dances, plays and traditional performances, such as fire-eating dances. Some have performed at art festivals and special programs around the world as part of the Butterfly Theatre Company. Members of the institute’s dance company also tour the globe, performing most recently at the Museum of Puppetry in Pakistan.
“I want to showcase their talent,” Damayanthi says. “I want to make people sit up and think: ‘Oh wow, is this a kid with autism? Look at this amazing talent!’ That’s the response we want!”
But she knows too well that this is not the common response to children with disabilities in Sri Lanka.
“Of course, there are still plenty of people who laugh and make fun of these kids, who ridicule the family or say they are unlucky or it’s bad karma on the family to have a child like this,” she says.
Ajith C. S. Perera, a disability rights activist in Sri Lanka who is himself a paraplegic, says this environment needs to change.
“Everyone has abilities, to different levels,” he says. “It’s the environment that makes you able or disable[d].”
As long as negative societal attitudes persist, he says that disabled people will continue to be excluded.
“But if we can create opportunities and create an environment that empowers them to participate in all spheres of life,” he says, “then we can see their abilities and their true potential.”
In turn, Perera says that differently abled people can add to national development.
“I think by excluding so many thousands of people with restricted abilities,” he says, “Sri Lanka is missing out on the potential of a large human resource that could contribute to the social and economic development of our country.”
This is just what Deva wants to overcome through the institute.
“In the last few years, I feel we have tackled the issue of helping families relate to their children and with stigma within the family and communities,” Deva says. “Now I am trying hard to help them reintegrate [in]to society.”
Deva encourages companies to invite the institute’s dance and theater troupes to their events to perform.
“This will help them earn some money but also to help change the mindset of people about differently abled youth,” he says. “I want to show our society what these children can do!”
Since joining the institute, Perera has come out of his shell and amazes his family with not just his new communication skills, but also his acting, dancing and weaving abilities.
“I didn’t know he could do so many things,” his mother says proudly. “Even weaving cloth mats, he is very skilled at that.”
Her son says that he also contributes at home.
“I sweep the floor,” he says. “I help mother.”
His mother quickly agrees that he now helps her with household chores and is able to do all his personal chores by himself.