Celebrating the difference
Sunera Foundation’s 20-year journey to change
live in a severely ‘disabled society’ where children are brutally raped
and murdered, where killing is commonplace, where society angrily
demands the reinstatement of the death penalty, and vengeance seems to
be the driving force. In this context, the question that arises is, is
it fair to marginalize only a group of people and call them ‘disabled’
when society as a whole appear to be ‘disabled’?
This is a divide the Sunera Foundation, has been trying to bridge for
the last 20 years. A none-profit organization, Sunera’s mission and
enormous challenge has been to integrate persons living with disability
into communities of their peers and the broader Sri Lankan society.
The force behind the scene of Sunera Foundation is Sunethra
Bandaranaike, daughter of two Prime Ministers, sister of a former
President, and a woman of great consequence in her own right. An
extremely self-effacing personality, she spearheads the art that she’s
promoting and says, she formed Sunera Foundation with a simple
philosophy in mind. That is, everyone deserves equal respect and all
should learn to celebrate the differences without depriving anyone of
their rights. She is committed to changing society to be equal
opportunity and encouraging diversity.
Success stories of Sunera
Prasanna Kumara- Kekirawa workshop
“I am 24 years old. I studied only up to grade 11. My
memory was not good and I could not remember everything that
I was taught unlike other students in my class. When I
joined the Sunera workshop I had to be accompanied by my
parents, as I could not go anywhere alone. My mother was
very sick, which made me extremely sad. My father was the
only breadwinner and I have a younger brother. I used to be
a loner in the workshop. I did not talk to anyone as I was
sad and shy. After sometime I started being friends with
other participants. My life was changing. One day I decided
to come for the workshop by myself for the first time and
have continued on since. The trainers taught me many things.
Today I am doing a small job as a sales assistant and I earn
my own salary. I travel to work alone on my bicycle. I never
thought I could ever become the person I am and do the
things I do today. I owe it all to Sunera.”
Indika Adikari - Kurunegala workshop
Indika is speech and hearing impaired. He became a member
of the Kurunegala workshop in 2004. He worked as a helper
and later became assistant trainer and subsequently senior
A talented actor and dancer, he performed in a play
titled ‘If I were You’, in 2009, produced for the British
Council’s 60th anniversary celebrations, by Director /
Playwright William Scott Richards.
He also had several roles in Jehan Alosyius’ play
‘Nutcracker’ in 2011.
Indika has directed dramas for ‘Samanalayaya’, including
the production of the Horombawa workshop for the drama
festival Colourful Expressions, in 2012.
Indika is married to Nimmi Tennakone, who is also hearing
and speech impaired.
Nimmi Tennakone - Horombawa workshop
Nimmi Tennakone joined Sunera in 2007 as a participant.
She is presently attached to the Horombawa workshop as a
helper. A talented dancer, actress and painter, Nimmi was
among the Sunera team that was invited to perform at SAMBHAV
2012 – a cultural event which was held in New Delhi in 2008.
When it comes to creating striking pieces of handicrafts,
Nimmi shows great talent. Participating at the North Western
Provincial level -International Abilympic Competition 2011,
Nimmi was able to secure the third place when she showcased
her talents by creating a well crafted woolen shawl.
For nearly two decades the Foundation has been involved in the
magical process of enabling the vocally, auditory, visually and even the
movement impaired give sound, sight and motion to their thoughts and
dreams through dance and drama, in its endeavor to prove to society that
these people are not disabled , just differently abled.
Explaining the early days of forming Sunera Foundation, Sunethra
says, “Being an art lover, I began to support the performing arts in Sri
Lanka through the Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust in the early 90s. Wolfgang
Stange, founder of the AMICI Dance Theatre Company in London, was one of
my good friends at that time. As we both love the performing arts, we
collaborated with each other in setting up a performing arts workshop
for a group of people with disability in Sri Lanka,” she says, further
elaborating that in 1998, a full length dance drama was created by
Stange, with the assistance of Rohana Deva, titled ‘Butterflies Will
This was followed by a second production titled ‘Flowers Will Always
Bloom’, which talked about the ongoing conflict and its tragic outcomes.
“This was first staged in Sri Lanka and subsequently in London, New
Delhi and Brisbane,” she say, adding that as a result of the successful
collaboration between the two organizations, Sunera Foundation was
formed and registered as a Charity in Sri Lanka in April 2000.
Thereafter, Sunera Foundation, together with Stange and Deva,
conducted performing arts workshops and produced two more theatrical
performances. This collaboration ended in 2007. However, Sunera
Foundation has continued its activities, expanding its outreach,
developing its programs and catering to an ever increasing demand for
its expertise. Today, Sunera Foundation is conducting workshops in
almost every district in the country, free of charge, and helping
thousands of disabled people to enhance their creative talents and
secure their place in society.
Quoting the latest statistics, Sunethra says there are close two
million differently abled people living in Sri Lanka. They form the
largest minority amongst the marginalised people in society. “Over the
years, very little have happened to support them and their families. It
is quite true, that so far, disabled people are living on other people’s
charity. In this context, Sunera Foundation too is providing a
charitable service,” she says, claiming it is high time these people
liberated from living on other people’s charity.
Not one to mince her words, she says it is high time the people who
govern this country, seriously take the issue of the disabled on board.
“There has to be an overall plan to tackle this issue with policies
worked out for short term as well as long term solutions,” she says,
elaborating that there are several categories of disabled people, with
the largest number being the poorest of the poor in villages who are
born with disabilities as well as those who have been disabled in the
thirty-year long ethnic conflict.
“It is of paramount importance that the government pays serious
attention to providing facilities to improve the quality of life of
these people in such a way that they can use their abilities to provide
livelihoods for themselves instead of depending on the charity of
others, which must surely be demeaning and takes away their self
respect. It is unfortunate that our education system has failed to
provide facilities in the schools to educate and develop disabled
Looking back over the past two decades, Sunethra says she’s truly
happy and proud of the work of the Foundation has done in developing the
creative talents and abilities of young disabled persons. This she says
has enabled them to strengthen their self confidence and self respect
and raise awareness amongst the people about the need to accept and
integrate them into society. She believes Sunera’s work over the years
has challenged the deep-rooted social attitudes to disability.
She is greatly appreciative of the passion and dedication of her
team, which has made it possible to break down barriers in carrying out
Sunera’s message of respecting the individual and his/her contribution
to the whole.
“As a result, our workshop participants can claim their rightful
place in society, educating their fellow citizens by showcasing their
talents in the creative arts.”
What’s special about Sunera Foundation, she say is that it does not
shun difference, but celebrates it. “We bring together people from all
ethnic backgrounds, who are disabled, to create dynamic theatre groups
under the leadership and guidance of our highly trained team of young
men and women. We use the performing arts as a tool for integration.
Those who are involved with us and support us are rewarded by the fact
that, through our work, prejudices are dismantled and acceptance and
integration is built in their place,” she further elaborates.