Arts and Disability in Singapore

Oct 05, 2016 at 11:16 am | Hits: 3431

By Justin Lee

Singapore’s achievements in the recent Paralympics have brought much attention to the role of sports in empowering people with disabilities. Not only has it provided an occasion for the community to admire and celebrate their abilities, but also an opportunity for Singaporeans to consider the significance of social inclusion. Similarly, the Arts is also an avenue for people with disabilities, not just to express themselves but to excel and achieve success.

Beyond the Instrumental Value of Arts for Disability

A dinosaur-print pouch designed by a student with autism made international headlines when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Madam Ho Ching, carried it to the White House on a recent state visit. The pouch sold out in hours. This clearly showed how artistic creations by people with disabilities can have commercial value.

The Arts have also been utilised to help people with disabilities on a daily basis. For instance, various modes of creative expression are utilised as part of psychotherapy and this is used to help people with learning disabilities. These instrumental uses of art are easier to understand and convey to funders and stakeholders, who see art as an “intervention”, useful for therapy or communal bonding. It is harder for them to appreciate the expressive value of art.

In reality, this means that funders may prefer to channel funds to alternative social services or programmes which can demonstrate better outcomes. A few months ago, I spoke to one of the youths behind Project Inky, an initiative where volunteers conduct poetry classes for people with special needs. Despite the joy they created through the process and the genuine connections made, it was clear that if they wanted continual support, they would be under some pressure to demonstrate some linguistic or developmental gains for their participants.

The American author Kurt Vonnegut once tasked high school students to write a poem, then tear it all up and throw it away without letting anyone read it. His rationale: “You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

Vonnegut’s statement is an important message about the expressive value of art that is often dismissed precisely because it is intangible. Art should not only be regarded as if it were a “service” provided to the disability community. Doing that would be similar to saying that the Paralympics are good for helping people with disabilities get fit. Art is an important tool for reflection that helps raise critical questions about the appropriate meanings of disability. It can even be a powerful tool for research and advocacy, and even demonstrate how to achieve meaningful and authentic participation for the social inclusion of people with disabilities.

One such case is visual artist Alecia Neo’s work with visually impaired students from Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School called Unseen: Constellations. These students were asked to choose the art form they wanted to practise and the kind of project they wanted to embark on. Artistic mentors with the relevant skills and experience were then identified to support them. Some wrote songs, others produced and acted in a play or made short films.

Were they any good? That is a legitimate question, but it is not the only one that matters. The way the project was conducted says this to the participants: Your views matter, and because we are interested in what you have to say, we want you to express them in ways that you think is suitable.

It is therefore important to allow the artists their artistic process. A single-minded pursuit of the client outcomes can denigrate important social, artistic and creative processes that should also be valued, and perhaps be considered as ends in themselves.

Creating Art with People with Disabilities

Artists who work with people with disabilities often find themselves conscientiously navigating many social and ethical challenges.

First, they have to learn how to understand, communicate and interact with marginalised and potentially vulnerable groups. Then, they struggle with questions about whether their project serves the needs of people with disabilities or aesthetic goals important to themselves as artists.

Another issue that artists have to be sensitive to is how the artistic product represents disability. Throughout history, the disabled body has been a site of public spectacle — take for instance circus sideshows from the mid-19th Century to the 1970s. Art and culture often frames disability as the result of individual tragedy that warrants medical treatment. This detracts attention from the social roots of the problem — that people are disabled not because of functional impairments, but due to the lack of social accommodations that create access, opportunities and respect diversity.

Although not all artists with disabilities focus on disability as a theme, when they do, they can enrich the world with disability experience. When education academic Linda Ware used disability arts to teach disability issues, she found that when viewers look more closely, “they find disability is not depicted as a life sentence, nor is it conveyed as an unending tragedy reduced to a label inscribed upon a body… as in our own lives, much turns on the details, on the nuances, and away from the normative.”  This, she argues, goes against the tragedy and medical model of disability that much of special education and mainstream society uses, which “equates human difference with limited capacity and individual pathology as it aims to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ the child in diligent pursuit of ‘normalcy’.”

As in other aspects of life, artists with disabilities are not accorded the same opportunities or respect. Sometimes, the art of people with disabilities is not fully considered art, and has been instead defined as “outsider art”, compared to professional art or even considered as a kind of therapy. Audiences may also be unable to read the art work beyond its disability frame, even if artists with disabilities do not always focus on disability as a theme for their art.

As producers of art, people with disabilities have opportunities to challenge such status quo views of disability. As a movement, disability arts has emphasised its potential as a progressive, emancipatory force.

Galvanising the Arts for Disabilities

An inaugural Arts and Disability Forum earlier this year sought to raise awareness for the arts and its potential for the disability sector in Singapore, so as to learn how to best harness the arts and culture to shape a more inclusive society.

Once challenge to overcome is the existing mindset of voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) that serve people with disabilities. They tend to regard the arts as a “good-to-have” that can complement the work done by social workers and therapists.

As artists often have to go through social service agencies to gain access to their clients with disabilities, VWOs need to be convinced of client outcomes for any partnership to happen. Therefore, arts-based programmes find it difficult to secure access and financial support. If VWOs constantly expand their horizons to be open to the many other community assets, they will be able to recognise the value and tap into a wide base of skill sets relevant to their causes. The National Council of Social Services and Disabled People Organisations themselves can cultivate such institutional relationships with the artists.

This raises the important role of intermediaries that will connect the community artists to the social service agencies. There is currently no association or even registry of community artists. Without a network or membership organisation, it would be more difficult for artists to find one another, get connected to resources, and improve the capabilities of the artists in working with the community. Such an association can also bring in more professional artists to do this work, one that NAC and SIF are already starting to do.

While many professional artists value art for art’s sake, socially conscious art brings art back from its focus on what is beautiful, and puts aesthetics in service of a larger social purpose. I would argue that disability arts and socially engaged arts are strengthened because of, and not in spite of its social purpose or moral agenda. Such art should motivate and energise the audience to reflect upon and support a cause, not to recoil from complex moral problems.


Dr Justin Lee is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, NUS. He studies issues relating to society and identity, including the social inclusion of people with disabilities. He is also Chairperson of ArtsWok Collaborative, a non-profit organisation which seeks to connect communities by harnessing the power of the arts to create dialogue, invite social participation and build bridges across difference.

Top photo from www.nac.gov.sg.

Category: Society & Identity

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