Finding Familiarity in a Foreign Place

By Adriana Cefis

The first time I experienced home abroad was while eating McDonald’s soft serve at Colombo’s Racecourse as little kids played soccer in front of me. The experience brought back foundational childhood memories of summer: house league soccer followed by Wild Willy’s ice cream. If you’re from Montreal’s West Island you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was taken aback by the strong feeling of comfort: how weird it is to experience home a million miles away as a foreigner in a place you’ve never been before, a misplaced sense of déja vu.


On my first day, my supervisor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo assigned me the task of writing a report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). He explained that States party to the Convention must submit an initial report within two years of ratification. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in February of 2016 but as of yet, no initial report has been submitted.

I was originally asked to research and write a shadow report. To give you an idea of the work involved in such a project, Canada’s initial report was drafted in consultation with  over 700 civil society organisations. In addition to the time constraint imposed by my three-month placement, the subject of disability rights is under-researched in Sri Lanka (or “poverty stricken” as one activist I spoke with put it), and the available data is paltry and outdated. The potentiality of producing a rich and nuanced report in just three months seemed implausible. My first challenge at ICES was therefore to narrow the scope of my project and devise a new proposal for my supervisor.

ICES HQ

Having already completed a great deal of desk-based research, I arranged to meet and informally speak with a number of disability rights “veterans.” I ended up writing a report on barriers to both formal and informal mechanisms to the implementation of the CRPD. To do so, I conducted interviews with umbrella disability rights organisations that represent the country’s main geographic areas, individual Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations, disability rights activists, and the the country’s Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on disability.

I used Alexander Betts and Phil Orchard’s institutionalisation-implementation gap to organise the information gathered from these interviews in my paper. This theory provides a frameworks for why norms institutionalised at the international level (for example, through the ratification of conventions) are implemented differently domestically by categorising implementation gaps into ideational, material, and institutional barriers.

At times, this project was a source of personal conflict for me: I wanted to be a responsible researcher. I devised ethics forms and had them approved by my supervisor, I tried my best to acknowledge the limitations of this three-month research project and underscore that this was not a scientific study, but a report designed to offer a comprehensive foundation for further research and activism, and I spoke to my supervisor about sharing the information contained therein widely among the network of organisations I spoke with.

I also grappled with the inability to include all of my findings in the report. The conversations I had yielded some viewpoints that would make for interesting studies in their own right as well as some side-points that could not be included in my project. For example, some of the people I spoke with asserted that disability can be a a model for reconciliation among different groups of people, specifically emphasising how parents associations provide an arena where people from different ethnicities, religions, and paths of life rally together. Others suggested that ex-combatants make for better activists because they know how to mobilise effectively.

One of the comments that came up and struck closest to home was the idea that there’s a hierarchy among disability rights when it comes to research, advocacy, and representation among disability rights organisations (primarily with visual impairment being very well represented and intellectual disability the most underrepresented).

This point was especially relevant in the Sri Lankan context where formal mechanisms of implementation often treat “disability” as a homogenous group and are not especially conducive to the implementation of disability rights, meaning that service provision often falls to the informal sector. The strength of the “rights movement” in a “niche” area of disability rights is therefore related to how well that “niche” area is represented and serviced.

I have a family member with an intellectual disability and my family has always been involved in organisations that provide services for this group of people in Montreal. Speaking to parents of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka and hearing their frustration at the lack of services and stigma experienced by their children accordingly struck close to home, as did listening to stories of families that went door to door to raise awareness and funds for service provision. There it was again, that familiarity, that sense of déja vu.

Volunteers for the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped over 50 years ago – my grandmother is in the middle at the back

Overall, I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity which allowed me to experience the challenges and beauty of field-work, including but not limited to addressing conflicting viewpoints, identifying and acknowledging internal biases, dealing with a variety of forms of transportation, the occasional battle with Sri Lankan fauna and flora, intriguing conversation, and the space and time to reflect on all of the above.

Public transit snack

Sri Lankan cooking class

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