Research Project

Performing Empowerment

Principal Investigator
Professor Lars Waldorf

Disability, dance, and inclusive development in Post-War Sri Lanka

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS). It is a collaboration between scholars based at two UK universities and VisAbility, a non-profit organisation that aims to break with stigmatisation and empower disabled people.

War inflicts lasting physical and psychological damage on many people and subsequent post-conflict development often leaves them behind. Long after the war is over, ex-combatants and civilians with conflict-related disabilities remain trapped in extreme poverty and social exclusion. One way to change this is to empower them with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to assert their socio-economic rights and to demand government services. Such “legal empowerment” is a form of rights-based development that accords with the emphasis on access to justice and inclusion in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This project examines an innovative way of empowering persons with conflict-related disabilities in Sri Lanka through an unusual combination of dance and law that was pioneered and piloted by VisAbility, a German association, in mid-2015. It consists of four main activities:

  1. workshops that combine integrated dance (where disabled and able-bodied dancers perform together) and legal empowerment
  2. flash mobs and dance performances in busy, public spaces by workshop participants
  3. research on how the workshops and performances affect the agency, dignity, welfare, and inclusion of persons with conflict-related disabilities
  4. dissemination of research findings to development policymakers and practitioners

Persons with conflict-related disabilities will benefit from this research in several ways. First, their participation in the workshops and co-production of the research will ensure that the project meets their needs for empowerment.

Second, the dance performances (which are both research outputs and objects of research) play an integral role in impact. For disabled participants, performing and ‘making abilities visible’ helps them to develop confidence, autonomy, and self-esteem, and to overcome potential insecurities about being seen/looked at.

Third, the research findings will be incorporated into a practitioners toolkit that will help the partners and other civil society organizations combine integrated dance and legal empowerment more effectively.

Fourth, the research aims to drive the empowerment of persons with conflict-related disabilities higher up the policy agenda. Finally, the project will produce an evidence-base on linking legal empowerment with participatory performance to reduce extreme poverty and social exclusion for persons with conflict-related disabilities after conflict.

Follow on projects

Performing Inclusion

This follow-on project is funded by the British Council in Sri Lanka. It continues the collaboration among Dr Lars Waldorf (Dundee Law School), Dr Hetty Blades (Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University), and VisAbility, a German-Sri Lankan association that combines inclusive dance and rights-awareness to empower disabled people and to challenge social attitudes towards disability.

This project differs from the Performing Empowerment project in three key ways:

  • This time, VisAbility is conducting shorter, community-based workshops and performances within specific villages – two near Batticaloa and one near Jaffna – in February 2019. So, whereas the earlier project focused on whether disabled workshop participants were becoming more empowered, this project examines how local communities and audiences are responding to the workshops and performances. Vipavinee Artpradid (also from Coventry’s Centre for Dance Research) has joined the research team to help design and implement audience research.
  • The research team has recruited 11 Sri Lankan researchers (six in Batticaloa and five in Jaffna) to help do audience research. It also has facilitated peer learning sessions in which the UK and Sri Lankan researchers can learn from one another about applying research methods in cross-cultural contexts.
  • The research team and VisAbility are holding roundtable discussions with local officials, Disability People’s Organizations, disability NGOs, service providers, and other interested persons in Batticaloa and Jaffna.

Several institutions provided crucial support for this project:

  • British Council in Sri Lanka
  • British Council’s Jaffna office
  • American Corner and Jaffna Social Action Centre (Jaffna)
  • Miani Technical Institute (Batticaloa)

Project outputs

The research will produce an evidence-base on linking legal empowerment with participatory performance to reduce extreme poverty and social exclusion for persons with conflict-related disabilities. The impact will be to inform policymakers, practitioners, and donors on how to scale up such interventions in Sri Lanka and similar post-conflict states like Myanmar and Nepal.

The specific project outputs will include: two journal articles, a policy briefing, a practitioner resource, and short documentary videos. These will be added to this website as they become available.

Additional resources

This list of resources is meant to be representative and suggestive rather than inclusive. It is meant to provide a starting point for other advocates and researchers interested in disability, dance, and law in Sri Lanka.

Disability and Disability Rights in Sri Lanka
Legal Empowerment and Disability

Civil Society Partners

Dr. Darshan Ambalavanar

Civil Society Partner

Church of American Ceylon Mission, Batticaloa

Gerda König

Civil Society Partner, VisAbility

Helena-Ulrike Marambio

Civil Society Partner, VisAbility

Mahesh Umagiliya

Civil Society Partner, VisAbility

Academic Partners

Adam Benjamin

Independent Practitioner

Formerly, Theatre and Performance, Plymouth University

Dr. Sivagnanam Jeyasankar


Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Eastern University of Sri Lanka

Kanchana Nilmini Liyanapathiranage


Department of Law, University of Peradeniya

Advisory Group

Jo Baker

Advisory group member, International Service

Dr. Chandani Liyanage

Centre for Excellence in Disability Research, Education and Practice, University of Colombo

Kanchana Nilmini Liyanapathiranage 

Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Eastern University of Sri Lanka

Professor Sarah Whatley

Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University

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Professor Lars Waldorf Principal Investigator