Framing works where disability and arts intersect

Literature has suggested a linear spectrum to frameworks where disability and arts intersect, using predominantly the extent of disability agenda and level of professionalism. When delved deeper, it is essential to consider a more multidimensional analysis. Many artists defined professionalism not by whether one practises the art full time or the level of income associated with the works, but by the work ethics of the artists and quality of the works, a sentiment expressed by both interviewed collaborating artists. The definition of disability agenda in a piece of work or the impact of the effectiveness of advancing the disability agenda by a piece of artwork can be highly subjective and influenced by many factors. The insights from the interviewed artists have provided some of the aspects to consider as some of these dimensions. The different intersection can provide thought-provoking examples for discussion such as:

Contents Created / Led Performed Branding Example
No Yes No Yes A love song written by a blind musician, performed by a non-disabled artist, marketing mentions disability of the composer.
Yes No Yes Yes A play about special education written and directed by non-disabled artists, performed by actors with different disabilities. Marketing mentions the disabilities of the actors.
No Yes Yes No A dance piece choreographed by a deaf choreographer, performed by deaf dancers, performed in a mainstream concert without mention of disability

Such a table can lead to many permutations worth discussing. Here we take the third example for discussion. One can argue that without letting the audience know about the deafness, the audience can easily assume this is any other regular dance group in the concert and there is a missed opportunity in challenging the audience’s stereotype perspective that usually dissociates deaf people with music and dance. Others may argue that the contents and art form do not incorporate deaf elements nor showcase aspects of deaf culture and can be seen as promoting an overcoming of the disability to assimilate into the standards and criteria of the non-disabled.

It is also interesting to note how the combination of the art form and the type of disability can affect how people view the effectiveness of the disability agenda. As one of the interviewed collaborators expressed, the theatre has the advantage of narrative (over other art forms) – spoken or unspoken words, or different language. This suggests that theatre has more options in incorporating the disability elements into the contents. In comparison, one of the interviewed artists with an invisible disability has found it difficult to achieve that with an art form such as dance. In many live performing events with performers with different disabilities, it is common to see a better response when the disability is visible such as wheelchair dancing.

Lee and the team behind the analysis paper “Arts and Disability in Singapore” have clarified that the purpose of providing an approach of framing is not to give a hierarchy of value and importance of works that fall in the different points of the spectrum. However, when presented in a linear spectrum, there is a high tendency for readers to form that interpretation. With a more multidimensional analysis, this tendency can be reduced. The value of such an analysis can help the sector identify the types of work that are as important and valuable but have been neglected or undermined. It can also provide disabled artists with new perspectives to consider for their progress. Like how one of the interviewed artists defines his next breakthrough would be to creatively and respectfully incorporate disability elements into his art, and one has decided to make that choice of staying clear of any events that brands itself related to charity, disability or inclusivity, other disabled artists can take reference and reflect on their approach in their craft. The analysis can also encourage and open up multifaceted perspectives on a piece of work in relation to how it contributes to the disability (&) art sector, instead of committing it to rigid labels and thus giving it a fixed value tag. This is in line with the preferences of some of the interviewed artists who have strongly expressed their frustration at labels.

What matters to the disabled artists

While it may be deemed cliched, ‘passion’ is cited as the main motivator for most artists. Why else would one take such a difficult route, especially in Singapore? Arts being a relatively low priority in the national agenda, barriers such as lack of funding, unsustainable income, lack of professional training opportunities are faced by most in the arts scene, disabled or not. However, one of the prominent barriers uniquely faced by disabled artists is the entrenched societal mentality to view disability as a charity. The disabled artists want respect for their craft, equity for opportunities, and to be treated like any other artists.

A point worthy of discussion is how the desire “to be treated like any other artists” can become a point of contention. A common sentiment is the organisers’ perception of the provision of access arrangements for disabled artists as an additional benefit and that performers should cover the costs themselves or pay it out of their performance fees. Another common debate is on whether it is fair to critique the quality of work using mainstream standards and criteria. This is further discussed in the next section.

While it can take time to change entrenched mindsets, it is important for stakeholders in the arts to start reflecting on and practising these equity and social justice principles.

Definition of Quality

If disabled artists want to be treated equally like any other artist, should the quality of the work be critiqued according to the same criteria and standards? For example, is there value when a singer does not fulfil a conventional standard such as pitch accuracy but is expressing what he perceives of that piece of music through his lens as a person with a different lived experience such as sensory differences? Or if two artists present the same piece of work of equal level of skills and artistry, should the artist with disability be accorded additional credit for effort in the process? If the disabled artist is commended on the extra effort required to reach the same level, is this what the disability community label as inspiration porn?

One of the interviewed collaborators expressed that quality is “when someone is very authentic and very true and present in the moment of doing something”. One disabled artist expressed that sometimes organisers benchmark their expectations of local disabled performers based on what they see on popular online videos of renowned overseas professional disabled artists. A common example of such an expectation is to incorporate similar complicated physical stunts, but his group is already performing at their best effort showcasing a “normal dance” yet it is not appreciated. This also implies that sometimes disabled artists have the additional barrier compared to other artists, having imposed on them the expectation to be exceptionally outstanding just to be recognized as an artist.

Interviewees quoted a few successful examples of quality disabled artists. One of them was ILL-ABILITIES™, an international bboy crew comprising of dancers with different physical disabilities and one with deafness. An interviewee appraised the dancers’ skills in using their unique and different physiques to create and innovate their own signature moves within the art form of breakdancing. Ramesh Meyyappan was another example cited. A Glasgow-based Singaporean, Ramesh is a deaf theatre-maker who specialises in creating performances using an eclectic mix of visual and physical theatre styles as a shared visual language for everyone to understand. One interviewee resonated with Ramesh in his views, often expressed in public interviews, that he is proud to be deaf but he would like to avoid labelling his work as deaf work, and hopes that people look at artistic merits and focus on creativity rather than the disability (Martin, 2017).

Such questions have the most visible and direct implications for grants and fundings. The interviewees critiqued how current grants and funding schemes give based very much on the final product “what we see on stage ultimately” and following “normative standards” imposed on such a group of artists or such a genre of artworks that have strength, potential and value in aspects outside of these norms.

With this field of disability (&) arts being such a greenfield in Singapore, access to grants and funding, therefore, becomes very much a chick and egg situation. An example is that most grants and fundings expect applicants to have a substantial existing portfolio but with the many barriers and little opportunities available, most disabled artists will not have the same depth of portfolio to be on an equal playing field as other artists.

The importance of bringing like-minded people together

One important recurring theme from the findings is the importance of bringing like-minded people together. This has emerged in the findings from the 5 artists in the form of, family and friends who share the same passion, interest groups developing into formalised performing crews and networking between fellow artists. Such platforms and relationships provide an important support ecosystem for the artists in terms of resource building, emotional support and motivation as well as creative leveraging for their craft. The crucial aspect of how these relationships and platforms supported and benefited the artists is the healthy power dynamics amongst the people involved. These relationships, such as friends, families, crewmates and genuine fellow creative collaborators, veer away from beneficiary and benefactor power hierarchy. In addition,

in finding a group identity, one can understand the self better, and develop a stronger self-identity that will be expressed stronger in their craft, which can include the uniqueness their lived experience of their disability can bring to their craft.

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