By Ranee Mohamed- Photos by Asoka Fernando
They teach us a remarkable lesson in life — they teach us to colour our lives with the colours within our reach rather than to long for the colours of a rainbow…..
There are colours everywhere — shades of blue, green and yellow here at 80/7, Layards Road, Colombo 4. Outside, under the comforting shade of a huge old tree, a group of young men gather to sing as the rhythmic drumming gathers momentum. Yet others clap as each one of them take their turn to dance – an attempted professional dance, in the steps of the dedicated teacher.
More things seem to happen here than in the city of New York itself, for this is how these special people have learnt to keep pace with the world outside. And like the proverbial tortoise, they seemed to have overtaken us all. There are great paintings, envelopes, cards, rugs, greeting cards, dish towels, pot holders, wrapping paper-bags, bread baskets, wall hangings and other breathtaking pieces of art made by these special people.
I was fortunate to have the first glimpse of their work before they are taken to their exhibition, ‘Expressions 2010’ to be held on Wednesday, July 14 at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery. The proceeds of this exhibition will be rechannelled to making life better for these special people who are in need of funds to run their home.
The home looks after the needs of special people – those with conditions as autism, slow learning, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy. These people want to talk but there is a certain unexplained bashfulness about them.
“I look forward to coming here every morning,” said Ravi, a differently-abled student, holding the side of his head and drawing circles on the ground with his toe. “I can play cricket, do my art, music and sing too when I come here,” he said. “I live with my mother in Kawdana Road and look forward to coming here, I really don’t know what I will do without this place and my friends here,” he said.
“I live in Dehiwala and come here because of the work I can do here. I love art and I like to play games. I love my friends too,” said Chanaka, looking aside as he spoke.
Asanka from Narahenpita, another differently abled student said that he lives with his parents and longs to come here to this Colombo Centre for Special Education. “If I am at home all I have to do is stay inside and clean the house. I don’t like that,” said Asanka who has showed greater talent and greater promise thanks to the Executive Director and staff here. “These people are amazing,” said volunteer and well wisher Siona Amarasekera who has abandoned a world of sophistication to be among these special people.
Leaving behind a flying career with an international airline, Siona’s very being seems to now revolve around making life better for these special people. Her eyes cloud with tears as she speaks of their ability and their enthusiasm. She wishes that their lives improve and that they can be given a better deal than what they actually have in life today.
Clearly concerned, civic-minded young people as Siona have let these special people into their hearts. “The first thing I remember is seeing the smiling faces of the students greeting me, together with their fantastic team of teachers sitting around tables all involved in a diverse range of activities including art work, handicraft making, carpentry and reading. The students were very welcoming and curious as to who I was, and as I walked around each table, and met them they excitedly showed me what they were working on. I was overwhelmed and all I knew was that I wanted to be able to work with them,” recalls Siona.
“They loved to listen to stories and enjoyed Old Mac Donald Had A Farm and Three Little Pigs,” said Siona who seemed to enjoy reading to them just as much as they enjoyed listening to her.
There was not a minute of rest, a second of disinterest, as differently abled people kept peering over paintings with paintbrushes in hand, or cutting out patterns or making block imprints, those who had nothing to do didn’t let that happen, they sat in a corner breaking pieces of paper to be recycled. It was a talent marathon here; for this is not a place of lethargy and indifference, here the Colombo Centre for Special Education.
Yet the truth must be told. Life is not perfect for them. There are things that they desire, that they will never have. Except for people as Executive Director Charika Muttiah and volunteers as Siona Amarasekera who have opted out of the rat-race and have the time for these special people. There are many things that these special people would like to have – like a tea party, special lunch or dinner – but who cares for them, who worries about them and who has the time to reach out to them.
Of what use is this life of ours if we do not have a day or half to reach out to those who do not seem to have a fraction of what we have been blessed with?
It is time to think in terms of switched roles – what if we were them? What if no one cared? And what if no one had the time? Would it not be a lifetime of sadness, just waiting for someone to come our way?
Her Life Revolves Around These Special People
She is Charika Muttiah, Executive Director of the Colombo Centre For Special Education and her life seemed to center around these special people. She is not the Executive Director who sits in an air conditioned room. She walks around, speaking to each child and while gathering every item for the exhibition, Muttiah expressed concern about their funds. “We welcome sponsors for these children. Many of them are not from well-to-do families and could do with sponsorship,” said a concerned Charika Muttiah.
“We have about 28 students and we try to get them all involved in different kinds of activity to bring out their talents. They are very talented people,” said Muttiah who has been associated with the Colombo Centre for Special Education for decades.
“We are also thankful to the management of Gateway College for sending us two teachers to teach computer skills to these children,” said a grateful Muttiah. “These special people would love an outing but it is not within our means. We have to hire a bus and take them out and ensure that they get their meals,” said Muttiah who seemed to long for an outing for her special students.
The Colombo Centre for Special Education is a place for the rehabilitation and care of the mentally disadvantaged males.