Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Epic Arts – how inclusive art is changing lives

By Luka D’Amato

Sokun gave a public presentation about Epic Arts at AEON Mall in 2017.
Photo supplied by Sokun Po

Kampot Province, Cambodia, February 2018 – Growing up is a process of figuring out our strengths and weaknesses, taking advantage of our abilities and overcoming our challenges.

For students with disabilities at Epic Arts in Kampot, life is no different.

Epic Arts is a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Kampot province, that uses workshops such as Khmer and contemporary dance, drama, art, craft, music and puppetry to encourage the integration of everyone in the community, with or without disabilities.

It gives students the opportunity to work together to cultivate their talents and prove their ability to be independent, strong and successful individuals.

Growing up in Cambodia with a disability is an uphill battle. It requires more than learning to overcome personal challenges – it also means learning how to fight societal stigmas.

Through art and performance, students at the school are able to show their compatriots and the wider world that they are equal, able and strong.

“When I perform around Cambodia and internationally, I feel proud. The audience applauds and I am proud as someone in a wheelchair, I am a dancer. This is my real job.” said Po Sokun, a former student of Epic Arts and performer.

Sokun initially started at Epic Arts as a receptionist. After a friend saw him perform dance moves from his wheelchair, he was encouraged to enrol in the inclusive arts programme.

After graduating, Sokun progressed to become a professional dancer and has since performed across Cambodia and abroad.

Now, he is employed as a project officer and is continuing to further his career.

He is proud of his job and said it has made him strong, motivated and happy. However, life was not always like this as Sokun struggled in his early years.

To have the same opportunities as others, Sokun had to fight to go to school – literally crawling up the front steps because there was no wheelchair access ramp.

He also had to fight to be accepted because some in Cambodia believe with disabilities cannot learn and are even a bad luck omen.

“In school, people looked down on me and judged me. I needed to work hard to make something,” he said.

“I needed to fight, I needed to make it,” he added.

Performing gave Sokun the ability to prove himself. This struggle was not about convincing others, it was about living his own life and showing his strengths and accomplishments in order to change the community’s perception of him.

He said: “I did not say much, I just did things. People changed their perspective. It is better to show them.

“Art is very powerful in my life. Before I became a dancer, I was shy. I was on my own. Learning about art, it changed me automatically.”

Regardless of disability, students learn various art forms, as well as other life skills such as cooking, reading or English language instruction.

Life at Epic Arts is about strengthening and showing ability. Performers and teachers work to dispel negative stereotypes about what it means to have a disability through performance and workshops.

UNICEF partners with Epic Arts, with funding from the Government of Australia, as part of the Disability Rights Initiative Cambodia. UNICEF works to promote the rights of children with disabilities and supports partner organizations such as Epic Arts to provide services and opportunities to children and families with disabilities.

Phon Tauo has one arm weaker than the other. She dropped out of school because she was ridiculed over her condition. This made her shy and withdrawn and she often stayed at home to avoid people. However, enrolment at the Epic Arts school reversed this.

“Art changed me because I am showing my ability. Art’s made me stronger and it reduces discrimination against me,” she said.

Now that Tauo is a teacher at Epic Arts, she wants to share what she has learned with the next generation and also continue improving her own ability through her work.

She tells a story about a workshop she conducted at a public school.

Phon Tauo, former student
and now teacher at Epic Arts.
© UNICEF Cambodia 2017/Luka D'Amato

At first, the students were quiet as the performers’ disabilities disconcerted them.

However, the more Tauo taught the students, the more comfortable they became.

Through her performance skills she made a connection with the students and was able to dispel harmful stereotypes about disability and show through her strengths that she is an equal
member of society.

“Because I am older, educated and have experience, they respect me and get used to it quickly. They see the value from inside,” said Tauo.

Performance is a perfect medium of expression for the students. They prove their physical, mental and emotional abilities and they demonstrate they are strong individuals who have a wealth of talent to contribute to society.

Soung Sok has been a student at the school for three months. With vision impairment. Life has been challenging but he is learning to take advantage of his strengths.

Soung Sok, student at Epic Arts.© UNICEF Cambodia 2017/Luka D'Amato

“Don’t rely on your disability. Do not be too humble, be brave,” he said.

Sok is now studying in the inclusive arts programme and said that being an artist is: “To show people about my ability.”

Everyone lives a different life, with different strengths and weaknesses and this is no different for people with disabilities. For students at Epic Arts, the approach is about living life to the full so everyone can see their strengths.

Through Epic Arts' partnership with UNICEF, negative practices such as families believing their children with disabilities are not worth sending to school are being overturned and the collaboration is working to equip students with skills that give them the opportunity to gain meaningful employment and lead happier lives.

1 comment:

  1. Children learn through play while every one learns through art, which is inspiring.