COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Siriyawathi Perera says that her neighbors in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s 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