When “the disabled” become “the helpers”

by Sarah Houbolt.

In a world proliferated by false dichotomies (such as ‘developed’ and ‘under-developed’ countries) and self-serving motives for helping others, how does the traditional notion of ‘help the poor little disabled person’ fit alongside unique people doing great international aid work? Sarah  explores her experiences in Thailand as a unique ‘helper’ on a cross-cultural community theatre project. 

Postcards from Thailand

Dear Mum

I’ve just arrived in Chiang Dao for the three week Makhampom Living Theatre study tour. There are so many aid organisations in Northern Thailand, but I think I’ve finally found the one that best aligns with my values. This morning I was told that Thailand, along with Italy, has the most frequent government changes in the world. Burmese and Khmer refugee camps line the borders and Westerners have come to help in their droves. I hope it’s going to be better than my last volunteering experience in Thailand, where my Western peers were blinded of my abilities and stuck me in the same ‘incapable’ box as the ‘incapable others’ they wanted to ‘save’. So frustrating! I might have to get around on the back of a motorbike while everyone else uses bicycles, but I don’t think I’m part of ‘the other’. No one is really an ‘other’, are they Mum?

Love, Sarah

Dear Mum

Do you remember how my sister and friends would always rush forward to cuddle the cutest baby? I’d automatically stand back, such a learned response. I believed I wasn’t good with children, but actually you know what, they really like me. Today we went to the local school to read books and play games. A swarm of little people crowded around each one of us, including me. We didn’t understand each other, but it was so much fun. Richard, our theatre director, told me I was a role model for his daughter and school children. It was cathartic to have someone recognise my adult nurturing potential.

Love, Sarah

Dear Mum

We’ve started learning about image theatre, shadow puppetry and found object performance. Our workshop space is the concrete floor under a bamboo roof, and our puppets and musical instruments come from the environment and the kitchen. You know, frying pans make great puppets!! I pull out my circus gear every lunchtime and teach whoever is interested. I think my contribution has helped convince the other western participants that I’m not some poor little disabled thing. I’m so relieved that the local Thais don’t have that same concept of disability!

Love, Sarah

Dear Mum

We’re halfway through the trip. I’ve eaten twice as much as I normally would but am half as fat with double the energy! Being a living theatre, where we eat, sleep, cook, clean and create art together, it feels like home and everyone feels like family. I don’t have to ‘fight’ for inclusion, it’s amazing. I give, and others give back. I feel a happiness I haven’t felt back home. Some of us are getting sick, but those Costat herbal pills you gave me seem to be doing the trick. Thank you! I have a feeling it’s going to be hard to leave here. The weather is warm. Why is it that the poorest people often give the best hospitality?

Love, Sarah

Dear Mum

We’re now working in Pang Daeng village. One dirt road, bucket showers, squat toilets and strange spiritual rituals. I can’t wait to have a proper shower when I get back to New Zealand! My host family Mum weaves skirts, bags, scarves and hats. Their village is no longer on the token tourism route because they were forced to move by the government. So I think we’re their best customers. In many ways I think they’re blessed, being sheltered from donor culture. We’re busy learning their artistic skills, teaching our own skills, and making an ensemble performance that acknowledges the village’s strengths and self-reliance. Love, Sarah

Dear Mum

I’m finally confident and ready to teach image theatre and circus when I get back home!! I feel so angry that people back home assume I can’t teach because of my partial sight when I’m getting such good results with the children’s circus classes here in Thailand. These children are amazing. I love them. They’re so eager to learn and they’re picking up all the tricks really quickly. So clever. I feel revitalized from my time in Thailand. Makhampom’s community development process is amazing, flawless. Such integrity. And such creativity! We give our goodbye performance to the village tomorrow night. I’m so excited! I’m a main character (there are no lead characters) – a Dara’ang child who finds support from her community. I end the performance with an aerial silks solo. So I’m happy. I’m never going to forget my time here!! It was a real chance to change my thinking and commit to being proactive, with people supporting and following my directions.

Love, Sarah


This piece is motivated by my curious observations of some other westerners on my recent trip, who tended to rush in and try to ‘help’ in my circus workshops even though they had no circus skills and everything was running really smoothly. My teaching style is more about giving clear verbal instruction and empowering the kinaesthetic learner to try for themselves. An inability to ‘switch off’ that certain type of paternalism that hinders personal growth subsequently stopped my peers from engaging well with the community development process. It highlighted for me the negative side of a ‘doing for’ mentality rather than ‘working with’.

Donor culture, paternalism, neo-colonisation and imperialism have all come from the same play-out of control, power, respect and non-listening, which affect unique people particularly in group situations.  By finding a way to be proactive and not stepping back automatically, we can challenge that stereotype of who is helper and who needs help, and step outside of that traditional conversation to break down such a stupid dichotomy.


How might we change the way society sees people with disabilities as synonymous with needing help, care, or donations?

Have you had an experience where someone assumed you needed help, or were incapable of doing something, without talking to you or asking you directly?


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