Teaching the Right to Information without Chairs: Human Rights Education on a Kathmandu Dance Floor

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By Professor Lars Waldorf, Essex Law School

Once again, I was called on to be living proof that anyone can dance. I showed off my worst moves. I told how my wife recently abandoned me on the dance floor. The facilitator confirmed that I was the tensest person he had ever encountered in his inclusive (mixed-abled) dance workshops. Once again, we put my own embodied embarrassment to some use: to begin the process of breaking down barriers, reassuring workshop participants, encouraging inclusive dance aesthetics, and thereby co-creating a safe space for bringing dance, disability, and rights together. 

What was different this time is we were training Nepali dancers, lawyers, and, most importantly, war-disabled activists in a pioneering method of transformative human rights education developed by VisAbility in Sri Lanka (with support from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), British Council, Goethe Institute, and Schmitz Stiftungen). What was also different is we were focusing specifically on the Right to Information (RTI) as a way for war-disabled people to demand more transparency and fairness in the provision of social protection and reparations. 

This South-South training and knowledge exchange was led by Mahesh Umagiliya, a Sri Lankan choreographer/dancer and a co-founder of VisAbility, alongside Vinothine Balasubramaniam, a Sri Lankan RTI activist. The Nepali participants came from the National Network of Disabled Conflict Victims (NNDCV), the human rights NGO Advocacy Forum, and the music school NAAD Sangeet Pathshala. I was there not only as an ice-breaker, but also to provide some (much less fun) training on project evaluation, ethics, and data management in my role as Principal Investigator on our Performing/Informing Rights project.


Civil war inevitably maims and mutilates. After war, people with conflict-related, physical impairments are likely to experience extreme poverty, social exclusion, and illegal discrimination – notwithstanding the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind” and notwithstanding 184 states ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is certainly the case in post-war Sri Lanka and Nepal where disabled people frequently lack the knowledge, confidence, resources, and access to claim their rights, benefits, and reparations. 

Our earlier AHRC-funded Performing Empowerment project (2016-18) brought together transformative human rights education, legal empowerment, and inclusive dance to enable war-disabled people in northern and eastern Sri Lanka to claim their rights and benefits. However, a few disabled participants became understandably frustrated and discouraged by a lack of government response to their applications for disability benefits. As a result, we saw a need to empower disabled people to chase up their claims-making to government officials using Sri Lanka’s strong RTI law. Hence, this new AHRC-funded Performing/Informing Rights project (2021-23) that not only adds RTI to VisAbility’s trainings in Sri Lanka but also tests whether VisAbility’s methods can be adapted and applied to Nepal’s post-war context.

Both projects develop a novel form of transformative human rights education for disabled and non-disabled people using dance. According to a 2011 UN Declaration, human rights education is all about “empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others.” Transformative human rights education takes this further through experiential learning focused on how rights can address everyday forms of political, economic, and social exclusion. It also emphasizes playful, participatory, and embodied learning. Indeed, dance has been used to teach, perform, and campaign for human rights, perhaps most famously with the One Billion Rising Campaign.

Both of our projects also pioneer a more holistic form of legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is a form of rights-based development by which the poor are enabled to use law to make rights claims and improve their livelihoods. Despite the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ call to empower disabled persons and provide “equal access to justice for all,” there has been surprisingly little attention to how legal empowerment might help war-disabled people. VisAbility has started filling that gap while also using inclusive dance to combine somatic and psycho-social empowerment with legal empowerment.  

Mixing Rights and Dance 

It’s not easy to combine rights and dance. For one thing, law privileges words, whereas dance relies on embodied expression. For another, there is a risk of instrumentalizing dance and thus losing some of its creative potential. Furthermore, the most visible examples tend to be professional performances, such as William Forsythe’s “Human Writes” and Pichet Klunchun’s “7 Decades of Human Rights,” rather than grassroots, education projects.

VisAbility is still experimenting with how best to mix dance and rights – something that Mahesh has likened to “putting sweet buns with chilli sambal”. Initially, its workshops had separate sessions on each. With the Performing Empowerment project, VisAbility started explicating dance movements through rights language and teaching rights using those movements (partly as mnemonic devices or body memories). 

With this new project, VisAbility is aiming for a more ambitious synthesis of dance and rights. That first meant Vinothine training Mahesh on RTI and him leading an RTI training himself. It also meant Mahesh training Vinothine on dance and VisAbility’s methods. They then worked closely with Helena-Ulrike Marambio, the project’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate, to develop a draft training resource. However, Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis meant Mahesh and Vinothine had to do this all online in the face of electricity outages. It wasn’t until they got to their Kathmandu guesthouse that they could actually start working through the resource together in the same physical space. 

For Mahesh, one of the biggest challenges is that RTI training involves “a lot of information you have to deliver” which is “really hard to put into a dance task” because it needs to be learned “as information, not as something else, not as something realized in a symbolic way.” Another challenge was to “create a methodology that was not only suitable for Sri Lanka but can be used in another country also.” 

Training and Knowledge Exchange

Even though the Nepali participants knew they would be learning dance and RTI, they were wrong-footed from the get-go. As Amisha Adhikari, one of Advocacy Forum’s lawyers, told us afterwards: “When they first entered the workshop venue, they were stunned because they did not see any chairs, any writing materials, projector, all that stuff. So, they kept coming to me asking … How are you going to talk about RTI [without that]?” What Mahesh and Vinothine quickly demonstrated is that moving bodies are a whole lot more fun than PowerPoints. As Vinothine put it, “without boring [them], we can deliver our knowledge and participants are engaged with the dance.”

Mahesh and Vinothine didn’t hesitate to deviate from the training resource as they read both the mood and bodies in the room. Still, some of the RTI exercises proved too complicated, which prompted me to suggest we “simplify and exaggerate” – simplify the RTI content and exaggerate the movements to make things more memorable. So, we focused on five key stages of the RTI process rather than trying to teach all 13 stages. Participants proposed movements to represent each RTI stage and we voted as a group for the ones we liked the best. Mahesh then helped us simplify and exaggerate the five chosen movements and had us rehearse the sequence over and over, so the RTI process became muscle memory. As Amisha later said: “The law is very complicated, right … but once they perform it by themselves through movements, through gestures, they will be able to remember those gestures and movements even if they don’t remember the legal provisions.” Earlier, though, she had had some doubts: “As a law student and as a lawyer, I always felt like law requires seriousness. … Dance is more like entertainment. So, I was confused how the two of them will work [together].”

Mandira Sharma, a prominent human rights lawyer and founder of Advocacy Forum, told me that she too had initially been “very puzzled” and “a little bit sceptical” about how dance and rights could be combined. But she explained that the training had “really opened our minds” as they saw how dance made it “easier for a non-legal person to really understand what the RTI process is about.” She added that dance is “really an empowering tool – even for us [as human rights activists].”

Moving from Dance Performances towards Street Theatre

On the last afternoon of the workshop, Mahesh choreographed a short work of “street theatre” (often a mix of theatre, dance, and music performed outdoors) that depicted a war-disabled woman using the RTI process to gain the government-issued disability card that entitles her to interim reparations. After just three, rather free-wheeling rehearsals, we performed for staff of the Taragaon Museum that had so generously hosted us. Afterwards, one audience member encouraged us to perform in more venues, including hospitals and rehabilitation centres.

VisAbility usually caps its workshops with dance performances at parks, outdoor markets, and street junctions. The performances serve three important purposes. First, they build cohesion and solidarity among the workshop participants. Second, they help empower participants: once they have danced in public spaces, they are less shy about performing their rights to government officials. Finally, they challenge the stigmatizing, shaming, and invisibilizing of disabled people in everyday life. As Gerda König, the German choreographer and VisAbility co-founder, has said: “Yeah, [people] are staring at them, or they look away, or they don’t even see them, but [for the workshop participants] to be as a crowd there [gives] so much power.”  

Until now, VisAbility’s dance performances have been mostly abstract or non-representational. There was some resistance to using dance didactically to tell stories about challenging discrimination and claiming rights. But with this new project, VisAbility is moving towards more representational movements (partly due to more co-creation with workshop participants) and then integrating that with verbal storytelling about RTI. This may prove more resonant for participants and audiences. After all, there is a rich tradition of using street theatre to challenge injustices in Nepal and Sri Lanka. And street theatre has been used to promote RTI awareness in places like BangladeshIndia, and Sri Lanka

While all of us were energized by our three days together, the real test comes when our Nepali colleagues start conducting their own dance and RTI workshops, as well as performances, with war-disabled and non-disabled people at the grassroots level. 

This article was first published on the project website https://performingempowerment.wordpress.com/  

Community and Connectedness in Clinical Legal Education: Before, During and After the Covid-19 Pandemic

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Lee Hansen and Liz Fisher-Frank, Lecturers in Law, University of Essex

As the pandemic transformed the way that we connect with others, we have been reflecting on the impact for clinical legal education and the place of community in law clinic activities.

In June 2021, we spoke to the joint conference of the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education and the Global Alliance for Justice Education. We reflected upon the Essex Law Clinic’s sense of community and interconnectedness before, during and after the pandemic. In this blog post, we highlight some of the main points covered in our presentation.

In recent years, the Essex Law Clinic (ELC) had been making significant strides in extending its service into our local community, undertaking a broad range of outreach activities alongside its campus-based clinic. This had improved access to justice for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups across Essex.

Some of this work had already been explored in a presentation we gave to the 2019 conference of the International Journal for Clinical Legal Education in Bratislava on Outreach Clinics in Areas of Deprivation. In that talk we had highlighted the challenges and impacts on community, student learning and wellbeing entailed by this work. Furthermore, we assessed ways to develop our existing outreach work in Jaywick, Colchester and across the Tendring area.

This work was halted upon the arrival of the pandemic. We speedily managed to take our advice service online ensuring many clients were able to benefit from the practical and improved accessibility for some that online advice allowed. However, for groups served in the outreach clinics the move to online delivery may have created barriers to access.

Our presentation drew upon Charles Dicken’s novel, A Christmas Carol, which itself engages with themes of community and isolation. Our reflective process was mapped against the sense of revelation in the novel, where the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future provide Ebenezer Scrooge a window into the strengths and challenges for community around him.   

Reflecting on our pre-pandemic clinic

We looked at where we were two years ago in developing, as we saw it at that time, our community outreach work. Internally, we were focusing on student community, recognising that developing and cementing our law clinic student community was a work-in-progress, needing thought and planning particularly around student teamwork.

Reflecting on our pandemic impacted clinic present

Externally, we recognised the links we have lost in the local community as services were suspended or even shut down due to Covid-19, with many contacts moving on or facing redundancy. Equally, we acknowledged the frustration of not being able to reach the clients we most wanted to due to the barriers faced in accessing the Virtual Law Clinic.

This negative was balanced with an unexpected positive when looking at our internal sense of community. Lockdown, and the enforced isolation experienced by so many students, galvanised us into action. We pushed forward with initiatives to promote our clinic community, to help students engage with the clinic and with each other. We created a newsletter, Clinic Connect. We hosted regular zoom ‘drop-in’s’ for students to chat with us about law, the Clinic and/or anything else. Although, undoubtedly, there was far more that could have been done, the pandemic propelled us into a sharper focus upon student connectivity and engagement with the Clinic.

Reflecting on our potential clinic futures

We are working towards re-establishing our links with external contacts, to ensure our outreach work can resume as soon as it is possible to do so. We are looking at developing new contacts, to change our service in line with the changes other services have had to make during this period of, what we hope to be, ‘recovery.’ It is even more important to us now to rebuild our outreach work and to again, make it a key facet of the Clinic.

We will continue to work on the progress made to date in relation to our student connectivity. Zoom has enabled more effective teamwork to take place, allowing students easy access to meeting up to prepare for cases in advance. We will ensure that when face-to-face returns, this progress too will be replicated. In fact, the dawning of our understanding, due to the pandemic, of the importance of our connectivity both in and outside of the clinic has meant we would like to see this as central concept in all our work in the clinic.

Reflection on the Law Clinic’s relationship with the local community and the development of an internal community of practice in the past, present and our possible futures, in the context of this pandemic, has provided a useful tool for our planning and we can see the transformative potential for the future.

Just Published: The Clinical Legal Education Handbook

Photo by Jez Timms

Lee Hansen, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex and Professor Donald Nicolson, Director of the Law Clinic, University of Essex

The Clinical Legal Education Handbook (edited by Linden Thomas and Nick Johnson; published by University of London Press on behalf of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) has launched providing law schools with a go-to-guide for establishing or maintaining their clinical programmes. Two academic members of the University of Essex Law School have contributed to this publication.

Lee Hansen, Deputy Law Clinic Director and Member of the Human Rights Centre, has contributed three chapters.

The first of Lee’s chapters provides guidance for clinics on client care to help such organisations provide to their clients a proper level of service. The chapter sets out key aspects of client care including the use of intake guidelines; client identification; time limit management; conflict screening; and the disclosure of key information to clients about the service and how their matters will be handled.

Client care has always been important but is of particular significance in the context of the current pandemic. Clinics are making changes to their regular service models to enable them to continue to assist the community throughout this unprecedented time. This may inevitably involve some new ways of working (such as the use of video conference technology) but it remains as important as ever to maintain appropriate systems and processes to ensure that clients who are placing their trust in these services, receive the best quality experience.

The second of Lee’s chapters provides guidance on effective signposting and referral. The chapter sets out key principles of effective signposting and referral, provides information about referral systems and set outs the regulatory position under SRA standards and regulations.

University law clinics often close outside of term time as students return home. Such closures also provide academic staff with much needed time to catch up on their scholarship or research which is often impossible to do during term time. In such circumstances where there are gaps in the continuity of a service it is critically important that persons enquiring for help are directed to an appropriate service that is able to assist. Again, in the current pandemic as sources of assistance are narrowed this guidance is of particular significance.

The third of Lee’s chapters provides guidance on the provision of debt advice by university law clinics. This chapter reviews changes to the regulatory landscape that largely prevent university law clinic from providing debt advice and suggests potential workarounds to support some provision in this important area. There will clearly be a significant level of legal need for debt advice in the context of the current pandemic and in its economic aftermath. This chapter therefore suggests some practical options to university law clinics to assist in meeting such need.

In addition to Lee’s chapters, Prof Donald Nicolson was asked to provide “words of wisdom” from those with many years of experience with law clinics and clinical legal education. Drawing on 25 years of experience in running law clinics (and four years as a student in a student-run clinic), Donald offered four items of advice to other clinicians:

  • the key to a clinic’s success is its people, so take your time selecting students and work colleagues;
  • never underestimate student – they will always surprise you with their enthusiasm, passion and new ideas;  
  • take risks – don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; and finally,
  • look after yourself – don’t allow your passion for the clinic take over your life to the detriment of friends and family.
Published in May 2020

The Clinical Legal Education Handbook is freely available online in PDF here.