She experiences dyslexia, but no disability holds her back. Shibani Rao is a Creative Psychotherapist, theatre artist, writer and public speaker. She is a woman with a voice that rings loud and clear, even after she has stopped speaking. Is it fair to label such a multi-talented person as ‘disabled’ or a person with ‘special needs’? She is far more than that one aspect of her being.
I would be filling out a form and someone would tell me, it’s okay you don’t have to fill it because you can’t. Or saying, this book would be tough for you to read, don’t read it.”
Shibani was diagnosed with dyscalculia and dyslexia when she was in 5th grade, all the while struggling to understand why she faced certain difficulties in learning. She had to deal with kids and others who were ignorant of her condition, and gave her a hard time. She says, “I have had days when I would be filling out a form and someone would tell me, it’s okay you don’t have to fill it because you can’t. Or saying, this book would be tough for you to read, don’t read it.” But once Shibani was diagnosed, she was able to explain to people about Dyslexia and stand up for herself saying, “No, I can do it! It will take me a little longer but I will do it.”
In a world with Google and other ready sources of information, we are still ignorant. It took a movie, ‘Taare Zameen Par’ for people to realise that learning disorders are not to be made fun of, but, treated with care and encouragement. Inspired by her own experience, Shibani wanted to better the situation for others who have difficulties coping. After graduating in Psychology she went to London School of Speech and Drama, to pursue her masters in Drama and Movement Therapy. Before that she worked alongside Gitanjali Sarangan, the founder of Snehadhara Foundation, a pioneer in Art Therapy in Bangalore, and perhaps even India. Today, Shibani has her own company, ‘Yellow Umbrella Therapy’, which works in the same line. She works with people with Depression, Autism, and various other mental health conditions.
In the beginning they were struggling to understand how to deal with this. How could this one turn out like this when no one in the family is like this.”
This theatre artist found support and encouragement from her parents, while learning coping techniques from theatre. She says that it is hard on her parents, and unless it’s a thing that happens in one’s own backyard, it is difficult to imagine the problems a child suffering from dyslexia or other mental disabilities faces. “In the beginning they were struggling to understand how to deal with this. How could this one turn out like this when no one in the family is like this?” In earlier days there was no proper treatment as well, with doctors asking her parents to give her speech therapy or take her to NIMHANS. She further adds, “And that can be quite an emotional shock for parents. The support they gave was phenomenal. With academics they understood, and so they would ask me, what else, other than academics was I good at. And that is what motivated me to become a state level volleyball player, and get into theatre and public speaking. With all this creativity your left and right brain is functioning, the by-product of going through academics was so much easier.”
Shibani can empathise well with the children and adults whom she works with. Learning from her own experiences makes her understand certain situations some of her clients experience, she says, “During exams I would faint. And I have seen so many similar cases with other children now and I can completely understand and empathise. It’s not the lack of studying, no, but instead the anxiety of doing your best and doing it in a particular way. And that pressure on a child is quite a lot. And such pressures don’t disappear; they are there when you grow up as well. So, immersing yourself in creativity helps a lot.” Hence, she comes up with different coping mechanisms every day for herself and the children and adults associated with Yellow Umbrella Therapy. She says “I am always trying to module different kinds of approach to handle my own disability. For instance, I have noticed that there are certain colour palettes that work for me while readings on the screen, then the letters don’t jump.”
I am always trying to module different kinds of approach to handle my own disability. For instance, I have noticed that there are certain colour palettes that work for me while reading on the screen, then the letters don’t jump.”
Shibani explains her work as a creative psychotherapist at Yellow Umbrella therapy, “Here we address different mental health issues ranging from depression, to autism, to schizophrenia. Or it could even be for you and me to look a little deeper within.” They use different art forms to express emotions that a person struggles to show. “It could be drawing or doodling, movement instead of dance; it also has a lot of voice.” This is where the concept of Mental Hygiene comes in; which is when one is aware of certain emotional difficulties or the different landscapes that are within a person, and by validating those emotions it allows an inner strength. Shibani explains, “For example, a depressive person may find it difficut to express what they are experiencing at times. And most usually one is put through a counsellor; of course one should talk about it. But physiologically what one’s body is going through, you have no idea.” An example of the technique they follow: to express an emotion like strength, they use sculpting, to discover what strength would look like in the person. Shibani says, “Every thought and emotion, you’re in the action of it. In the Doing is the Learning.”
Shibani’s role in the Tea for Trump campaign from the tea company Te-a-me by Fisheye Creative Solutions has gotten her a fair amount of popularity. Her perfectly modulated voice with a neutral accent was a big hit. Describing how she got the role, she says, “Dev from Fisheye Creative Solutions contacted me through a friend’s reference and asked me if I would like to be a part of this out-of-the-box ad. And for me it was putting the voice out there.” The ad received a wide mix of reviews, mostly positive.
When a person says, ‘this person is autistic’, I beg to differ. That’s a label. The person is experiencing Autism. He or she is experiencing depression; he or she is not depressed. They may be excellent cooks, or good in arts, which are completely nullified due to labels such as these to name the person.”
No matter the situation Shibani is always pushing herself to get exposure to different things. She says, “You live by your means and your passion drives you.” Establishing her own company Yellow Umbrella Therapy, is just one of her many ambitions. She says, “Yellow Umbrella Therapy is in a community space. Wherein I would hire Yolk Studio (a Creative Habitat space) to do theatre therapy and art based workshops. I also do corporate workshops. I work with the HR department of companies to understand what their needs are, and instead of doing just team building workshops I actually get to the reality of certain emotions within the group which enables them to empathise and work far more efficiently.”
Shibani expresses her distaste for the labelling that individuals with mental health conditions receive, “When a person says, ‘this person is autistic’, I beg to differ. That’s a label. The person is experiencing Autism. He or she is experiencing depression; he or she is not depressed. They may be excellent cooks, or good in arts, which are completely nullified due to labels such as these to name the person.”
You live by your means and your passion drives you.”
She is not to be labelled, and neither is anyone else. Shibani Rao has proved to the world over and over again that she can do anything; and perhaps with more finesse than the rest of us. She, and many others like her would like you to understand that ignorance is not bliss; ignorance is plain and simple ignorance. Unlearn what you have learned. Be aware. Take the first shaky step and live feeling bolder every new day. Let’s make this beautiful life a joy to live and share.