For all of us are ‘differently-abled’...

By Malinda Seneviratne
mong the arguments for desisting from struggle one of the commonest is "the odds are stacked against you". And yet, throughout history, individuals and collectives have chosen to brush this commonsensical line of reasoning. The counter-logic is, interestingly, as simple and as commonsensical: "you fight to change the odds". Transformation, after all, is obtained both through the critical ruptures as well as incremental gain. If this were not the case, we wouldn’t have the enchanting ditty, "little drops of water, little grains of sand..". More than all this, the decision to fight also implies a willingness to subject to test the relative strengths of the concerned parties. Struggle, and we discover how to fight, how not to fight, and how to figure out the limits of the possible. All of which is important in pushing those limits outwards and towards the horizons of our utopias.

These thoughts played in my mind as I talked with Sunethra Bandaranaike, Chairperson of the Sunera Foundation, about "Swinging Times - A Fairy Tale for Adults," produced by The Butterflies Theatre Company and directed by Wolfgang Stange, Julian Crouch and Rohana Deva, a production that will be staged on September 5 and 6, at the Bishop’s College Auditorium.

The relevance of the conversation to my reflections on struggle and hope would perhaps be gathered in the titles of the productions that the The Sunera Foundation had previously sponsored; "Flowers will always bloom" and "Butterflies will always fly". They speak more of hope than express concise formulae for radical engagement. Still, hope is the perennial nourisher of struggle, especially when "the odds are stacked against you".

But what are these "odds" and what is the politics of defining "odds"? Are there preferences for example in the matter of distributing inabilities through definition? Sunethra clearly believes so.

The Sunera Foundation, which seeks to develop the creative and artistic skills of the physically and mentally disadvantaged and trauma victims, grew out of the Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust established to assist young and new artistes in dance, drama and music.

Using the performing arts to work with people who are differently-abled, physically, mentally and socially, is an idea that had its roots in recognizing the fact that this is a social category that is neglected, even in the discourse of the marginal and marginalized, according to Sunethra.

"It is important that they feel safe and secure and are not subjected to ridicule. There are 1.2-1.5 million people in this country who fall into the category of "differently-abled". There isn’t focus and awareness on the magnitude of the problem.

"There is a parliamentary act for the protection of rights of persons with disabilities. This was passed in 1996 and is comprehensive and good. Unfortunately it has been confined to paper and is not applied in practice."

Sunethra stated the obvious: the state doesn’t have sufficient funds. Still, she was very appreciative of the fact that the National Institute of Education has for the last 30 years or so done a great deal of work with "handicapped" people, especially in the matter of training teachers. The Ministry of Social Services have also done a lot in areas such as finding employment, providing medical facilities and housing, she pointed out.

No one would disagree that there is still much work to be done. This is why the Sunera Foundation has taken to heart Section 13 of the act to protect the rights of the differently-abled, "to encourage the establishment by the state and by private individuals, of institutions to accommodate persons with disabilities and the provision of educational and vocational training to such persons; to assist, by way of grants or otherwise, organizations engaged in providing service to such persons."

Sunera has actively solicited the support of NGOs, donors, foreign governments, businesses and individuals in implementing their various projects. Sunethra had special praise for the media: "It is critically important that the message goes out to the people and both the print and electronic media have been extremely supportive in doing this."

The message? It is pretty modest, according to Sunethra, "these people have to be treated with respect." "Ekama ethine!" (That alone is enough, is it not?) She insisted that if they become aware of their rights, and if people begin to look at them differently, they will do wonders. "I would like to see them taking over Sunera someday," she said, indicating perhaps her confidence in the people her foundation seeks to help.

She believes that they are for the most part trapped inside their homes simply because their families and society in general fail to understand that there is a vast difference between having a disability and total incapacitation. They are of course not able to "function like the rest", but it is rarely acknowledged that no one "functions like the rest". All of us are unique, in our abilities and our inabilities. There are things we cannot do, and things we can which no one else can do with as much ease and success.

The need to include and integrate such people in ordinary social intercourse, the Sunera Foundation believes, must begin with they themselves recognizing their potentials. Art, in whatever form, transcends many limitations or, to be more correct, perceived limitations, whether they are imposed externally or self-imposed. Those who have the gift of the word, for example, will find a way round censorship. This is why, Boris Bulgakov could say, "Good books do not burn" after the Soviet Secret Police burnt the manuscript of his novel "The heart of a dog". He re-wrote it.

Years ago, Gamini Haththotuwegama demonstrated through a drama workshop that good actors are not necessarily born. We learn to act from our tender days. So much so that we act all the time without even realizing or admitting to ourselves that all we do is wear a mask and perform. Recognise this and you are on your way to a different universe of expression.

According to Sunethra, the workshops out of which these productions ensue are built on a sharing process, where individuals are respected and the whole is the coming together of their creative and expressive energies. Difference is celebrated. The celebration of difference works, I believe, only when this is underwritten by a recognition of the common humanity within each of us, our desire to live and our fear of death, our need to love and be loved, that we suffer but strive to overcome.

I have never attended such a workshop, so I cannot comment on how the dynamic really unfolds. Ideally, I believe, we ought to realize that the term "differently-abled" is not a descriptive reserved to those who were formally labeled "handicapped" or "disabled", that it is not an excluding term but an inclusive one, and one that includes those of us who have never believed that we suffer disabilities.

If we do not stand up to be counted when integrity and dignity are at stake, are we not crippled? If we refuse to trust our eyes when our gaze falls on that which is horrendously unjust in our society, are we not blind? If we refuse to hear the clarion call for action raised by deplorable human conditions, are we not deaf? If we refuse to speak the truth of what is clearly apparent, are we not dumb? If we cannot put two and two together and come up with four, are we not mentally challenged in some way? The truth is that all of us, to a greater or lesser degree suffer from all or some of these disabilities.

I remember Jean Finley. Jean gave up a promising academic career at the University of Chicago to raise five children and spend a lifetime fighting injustice. During the last ten years or so of her life, Jean was stricken with a kidney ailment which forced her into a wheelchair. At that time she was a resident of Ithaca, New York, and she produced more than 1000 television programmes for the public cable TV station, championing activism and the arts.

During the brief period I lived in that town, there were innumerable occasions when I saw Jean, bustling about her wheelchair, shopping, visiting friends, attending demonstrations and distributing leaflets. I remember attending a memorial service for her a few days before I left town. A young man in a wheelchair spoke, tears streaming down his cheeks. This was the essence of his testimony: "Jean made it ok for all of us; she made it possible for us to believe in ourselves and be ourselves. She mdae us bigger than we ever dreamed we could be." My friend Ayca and I wept as people known and unknown walked up and saluted this exceptionally courageous woman. We both felt utterly vulnerable and incapacitated, learning about her contributions to community and solidarity. We dedicated to Jean Finley the following issue of a monthly newspaper we jointly edited. We promised "to touch all the touch-me-nots" just as Jean had done throughout her long and meaningful life, convinced that no one is ever limited as long as the dreams that are dreamt are seamless and unbounded.

"What is more lamentable: marginalisation or self-marginalisation?" I ask myself. The latter, it has to be the latter. Perhaps "Swinging Times - A Fairy Tale for Adults" will shed some light on the question. Meanwhile let us take time to gaze upon a flower and follow the path of a butterfly.


Swinging Times - A Fairy Tale for Adults

The Sunera Foundation presents The Butterflies Theatre Company in "Swinging Times - A Fairy Tale for Adults". Directed by Wolfgang Stange, Julian Crouch and Rohana Deva the production will be staged on the 5th and 6th of September 2003 at 7.30 pm at The Bishop’s College Auditorium.

Set in a military backdrop the story highlights the many unseen facets of war, how the fortunes of some are built upon and indeed dependent on the lack of peace and the demand for weapons of destruction. It questions the morals of a rapidly "developing" society. It leaves the audience pondering, long after the curtains close, on the issues which surface during the unraveling of the plot. However what sets this production distinctively apart from many others lies not in its plot but in its cast. The case is made up of a diverse selection of individuals ranging from professional actors to physically, mentally and emotionally handicapped performers, soldiers and displaced persons from all ethnic communities.

"Fairytales, when analysed, can be quite frightening.

The Dark forces battle with the Good

Can the magic hours between Midnight and Dawn work on our subconscious? Do dreams reflect reality? Can the tricksters in the show manipulate our minds, or do we trick ourselves into a make-believe world, which does not disturb us? Do we help to clothe Evil in a mantle of Goodness and admire the Prince of Darkness when he invites us to his palace and we drink his contaminated wine?

Our trickster takes us into a land of weaponry where the weapons talk.

Do we believe their gossip?

To believe or not to believe, that is the question.

We encourage you to experience this performance in your own personal way.

Don’t let yourself be tricked."
Sunera Foundation