New West Bank project: Tightropes, juggling and clowning about

Last month Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) was delighted to begin an exciting new partnership with the Palestinian Circus School (PCS) in the West Bank. Together, we are promoting the rights of Palestinian children with learning disabilities to effective and full participation in public life.

Learning disabilities, the most common developmental disability which are referred to as intellectual disabilities outside of the UK, including in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and the US, refer to certain limitations in an individual’s cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social and self-care.

In the oPt disability is stigmatised, with degrading terminology and attitudes common. Combined with many practical obstacles, this mindset can make it difficult for people with disabilities, including young people, to participate in society, including accessing education, using public transport, earning an income and attending social events. According to the last national survey, published in 2011 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, around 300,000 Palestinians, almost 7% of the population in the West Bank and Gaza, are living with a disability and 32% of all disabilities are learning disabilities. The study also revealed significant barriers to their participation in society, with 87% of Palestinians with a disability unemployed and 8% of those aged 18 and above avoiding engaging in any social activities because of poor public attitudes.

By partnering with the Palestinian Circus School, MAP is supporting young people, including those with disabilities, to change practices and challenge public perceptions of disability.

Founded in 2006, the Palestinian Circus School brings circus skills- acrobatics, juggling, clowning and aerial- to more than 300 children and youth, including those with learning disabilities, each year. The Circus School has a centre in Birzeit, including a big top tent, and outreach circus clubs in Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron, Al Far’a refugee camp, Jalazone refugee camp and Jerusalem.

The founders identified circus art as an important and effective tool to address the challenges young Palestinians face as a result of living under prolonged Israeli occupation and the many restrictions this imposes. “They witness their homes being unlawfully demolished, experience personal humiliation at checkpoints, suffer physical abuse and arbitrary detention and many carry the grief of having loved ones killed by the Israeli military,” Palestinian Circus School. By teaching, creating, performing and programming circus arts, the Palestinian Circus School’s mission is to strengthen the creative, social and physical potential of Palestinians, seeking to engage and empower them to become constructive actors in society and raises local and international awareness about the positive Palestinian potential and its different challenges. 

The School also recognises the value of circus in promoting and strengthening the participation and inclusion of Palestinian children with learning disabilities in society. Adopting a social and rights-based approach to disability, the School aims to increase the integration of children with learning disabilities in their centre and, through this work, raise awareness of the importance of their full participation in society, in addition to improving their physical, mental and social skills. The School has an Educational Programme that teaches children different circus disciplines such as trust, respect, self-awareness, self-expression, equality, integrity and inclusion. It has proved to be highly effective in improving the physical skills of children with learning disabilities. Parents and caregivers speak of positive changes in the mobility and coordination skills of their children. Parents also say that their children become happier and enthusiastic, practicing their tricks and techniques at home and they believe they feel recognised and empowered by their newly-gained capacities.

The School also creates and performs locally and internationally contemporary circus productions. This summer the circus school will be running a ‘Circus production workshop’ to bring performance training to children, including those with learning disabilities. They will be preparing for four performances to take place in January 2020 across the West Bank, targeting approximately 500 people. The shows will also act as a vital advocacy tool, demonstrating the capabilities of children with disabilities and the possibility and importance of the inclusion of children with and without disabilities in the same activities.  

We look forward to reporting more about MAP’s new work with the Palestinian Circus School soon. To support our disability programmes, please consider making a donation today.

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