Disability Arts – Notice us for our art, not our disability

Isaac Lim outlines conversations in online disability arts panel discussion, Nothing About Us Without Us: Artists on crafting their voices. The full video is also available to watch, with Singapore Sign Language and Korean Sign Language interpretation, and captions in Korean and English.

The writer of this piece is a plus-sized male with short hair, bespectacled, and casually attired in tees and shorts while writing this. The writer has a pair of foot-brace on his legs and is seated on a blue-framed wheelchair with a power-assist device attached.

Strange introduction? Not really in the world of inclusive arts and performance. These visual descriptions are helpful, especially for our blind and visually impaired friends, to give an impression of who’s talking.

This was what each panellist provided before they spoke at the forum, Nothing about us without us: Artists on crafting their voices, held on 5 March 2022. This was part of the event Disability Arts: Critical Conversation between South Korea and Singapore, jointly organised by ArtsEquator, Equal Dreams and the Korean-based Taeyoon Choi Studio. The inclusive online event carried live captions and translations, sign language interpretations, as well as screen reader-friendly presentation materials made available.

In the session, I was glad to hear from some of my peers, artists in the disability arts field from both Singapore and South Korea: Danial Bawthan (aka Wheelsmith) (SG), a music producer and theatre practitioner; Claire Teo (SG), a blind multidisciplinary artist-educator; Kyung Ae Ro (KR), a choreographer, researcher and art educator; and Gyeong Ho Jeon (KR), a visually impaired sound artist.

With/Out Labels: Are we still who we are?

One pertinent point that was raised by a couple of the panellists was the issue of labels. Does it matter how disabled people are labelled? How should we label ourselves and how do these labels affect the public’s perception of us and our work? Is our artwork any less if we weren’t disabled? For example, Danial shared that he does not like to identify and link his work to his disability, because “it is not relevant to the general public” and that “a label creates unfamiliarity”. For me, I’ve learned to embrace the positive side of labels, seeing how we cannot escape them. Perhaps, labels create opportunities and open up possibilities, especially in the commercial side of things.

Adding to the conversation about words and labels, Gyeong Ho’s sharing of his musical experience was interesting. Redefining sounds and music as just aural elements, he ‘re-labels’ sounds according to texture, taste and other tangible material. For example, he likened the sound of the violin as a “boiled dumpling”, and a cello like a “fried dumpling”. His approach to music and the soundscape he creates, definitely makes him more than just a percussionist or musician. (I ‘label’ him myself as an experiential sound artist.)

It seems that in our society, labels are a tool for people to make sense of something they are unsure of. While it is natural to resist being labelled, especially if it reduces a person and their work, we also need to consider how we can turn the label into a positive advantage for ourselves. And the greater population needs to consider, are they acting on stereotypes? When can we stop caricaturing those who are different?

Regardless of our individual disability(ies), the work is representative of who we are and is the creative best that we can offer. The irk at the term ‘inspiration’ was also mentioned a couple of times, and while we resist it, it seems that we wouldn’t be able to distance ourselves from it until the world sees all of us as equals. It is a collective fight that disabled people across all fields need to push for. Alternatively, accept it, because hey, at least you’re an inspiration to someone.

Diverse Abilities & Disabilities: A Stage for All

Kyung Ae has worked with a variety of art practitioners with different (dis)abilities, from the hearing impaired and visual impaired, to persons with cerebral palsy. She shared that the process of working with these collaborators is focused on what they are able to do, how they interpret things and improvise within their means, and putting reasonable challenges to push them to create their own form of art.

This is similar to Gyeong Ho’s journey of finding his way through making and developing his own brand of music, venturing across senses, textures and sounds. He has also, over the years, worked out his own way to track the movements of the conductor, and has performed on stage with orchestras all around the world.

So comes the question: is adaptability the only way for disabled persons to make art work? In my opinion, yes and no. The universal saying goes: it takes two hands to clap. But two feet can do that too, or a hand and a foot. If the artist is a disabled person, whatever work that is created would be genuinely theirs, with no need to adapt or change it to suit a producer or audience. However, if the disabled person is challenged to perform a role that’s not originally set out for them, then yes, they would have to adapt. One thing that society has taught us is that we are all malleable, that we should and can adapt to change. This is especially true for all artists.

As Claire put it: “who said disabled persons could only play disabled characters?” Can’t we see Romeo falling in love with a wheelchair-using Juliet on stage? And have you not seen hearing impaired dancers take the stage, in sync with their hearing dance partners? If there is a will, there is surely a way.

I remember my own experience, being part of the ensemble in The Necessary Stage’s The Year of No Return at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021. When I was invited to join, I hesitated. But during the rehearsal process, I was not treated differently from the rest of the ensemble, just that the choreographer had to work out my parts, making sure I was comfortable with the movement sequence for the ensemble. The end product was a work that is representative of the diversity of today’s society.

The stage is made for all to shine. As Singapore’s pledge goes, societal equality is “regardless of race, language, or religion.” May we add ‘ability’ to that in the near future.

Quality Work: Who’s Expectations, Really?

A question that was raised in the live discussions was the issue of ‘quality’. What is work of good quality? Whose standard of quality are we attempting to match? And how is good quality defined?

Claire stated that she would never settle for second-best, “that quality is a priority and we have to be professional to get there.” Kyung Ae shared how in her project Listen/Hear, instead of expecting a level of quality as a finished product, the key focus was on the artists’ thoughts and the intangible aspects in the process. For Gyeong Ho, the right quality is achieved when the end message is clearly conveyed through the work.

What I think rules above quality is the authenticity of the work. Similar to Gyeong Ho, I am of the opinion that for an artist (or arts group) to put out a work of authenticity and quality, it must properly convey the intended message, be made with heart (in consideration of the resources they have), and be able to start a conversation through its presentation.

As the disability arts scene in both countries is still growing and developing, it is inevitable that some works will not be as polished as others. With any form, there will always be some works that are considered amateur, but surely these should be seen as part of a larger conversation that includes the working process, funding and resources, and audience education. How can we level the playing field, improve the creation process in order to give us more room to creatively express ourselves and voice our opinions through our works, and encourage audiences to view and listen without preconceived judgements about disability and the disabled? What is more pressing is that disability artists and arts groups must look into developing all these other areas too.

For now, we need to accept that we are able to produce works of good quality within our means, and find collaborations that work for us. Like Claire said, “until we can come to a point of making quality art independently, I invest and appreciate collaborations, mentorships and shared spaces, where expertise, experiences and resources can be exchanged.”

The Way Forward: Look at Us, We are Here

It is exciting how conversations about disability inclusivity and diversity in the arts are growing and receiving more attention in recent years. As a person who only recently attained disability (I required a wheelchair for mobility in late 2019), I find myself fortunate to be able to continue practising my art in Singapore (I was already a playwright and performer before). In the last couple of years, we have seen more disability-led and inclusive arts practices in the country despite the pandemic. Societal views about disability are shifting, albeit at a crawling speed.

I believe that individually, disabled artists have stories to tell and experiences to share through their art. Collectively, we can create works that are powerful (and motivational and inspiring). And when we work with able-bodied artists, we too can adapt and blend in, adding layers to the narratives, or shine as we truly deserve to.

So look at the disabled, not for our differences, but for our artistic talent. Explore with us, we are here, and let’s make it so there’s nothing out there about us, without us.

Please find the the video of this event below:

This article has also been translated into Korean here: https://artsequator.com/nothing-about-us-korean

This is a response piece to the panel Nothing About Us Without Us: Artists on crafting their voices, which took place on 5 March 2022 as part of the event Disability Arts: Critical Conversations between South Korea and Singapore presented by ArtsEquator, Equal Dreams and Taeyoon Choi Studio.

This content is supported by Art Council Korea, 2020-2021 International Arts Joint Fund (Korea-Singapore International Exchange Program). The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

About the author(s)

Isaac Lim is a bilingual writer (English & Chinese) and wheelchair-using performer. A graduate of the National University of Singapore’s Theatre Studies programme, he mainly dabbles in writing plays, performance reviews and advertising copy. Isaac was previously seen on stage in Incarnation of the Beast (T:>Works) and on-screen in the film Young & Fabulous (2016). A selection of plays he has written include Between Consciousness (2016), Project Understudy (2016), Go Home (2017), I am Mei (2019) and What is Sex? (2020).

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