Defining the craft in the spectrum of disability (&) arts
When defining the type of meaningful disability (&) arts that they are doing or aspire to do, the five artists brought up different aspects and have varying preferences. The four recurring aspects of the definition include whether the contents are related to disability, whether the creation process is led by a disabled person, whether the work is performed by disabled performers, and lastly whether information about the disabilities of the people involved in the work is made known in the marketing and branding.
The contents of their works do not always have to be anchored on disability. The artists want to have the space to create freely and not be bounded by such criteria. If there is an inspiration to incorporate the topic of disability to send a message and tell a story, it is considered a bonus. It is however very crucial for two of them that the creation process is led by a disabled person. Though some find works created and led by non-disabled artists but performed by disabled artists to be valuable and meaningful, all of them emphasised the need for disabled people to be consulted and the topic be properly researched if the content of the work is related to disability.
While most felt strongly that a disabled role or character must be performed by a performer with that disability for authentic representation, one interviewee considered such a restriction too narrow-minded and did not object to the casting as long as background consultation and research are adequately done.
Some have a very clear and strong preference to not mention their disability in any marketing. They are fine with people knowing about the disability thereafter. Others felt it is necessary to make the disability known, be it to send a clear message that disabled artists can also do quality work, or to emphasise the disability lens and voice in the work.
Despite the varying opinions and preferences in different aspects, the underlying belief is common: the artists want people to focus on the art instead of the disability; they want to be respected as artists and to be seen as equal to any other artists. Disability can come into play as a form of a unique, creative and fresh perspective or element portrayed or expressed through the art form but not as a tool for a charity lens.
Motivation in practising their craft
All five artists quoted passion as the main motivation in starting and sustaining in their artistic journey until now. Most of them discovered their interests at a young age but started getting serious about their craft at varying stages due to varying opportunities and platforms to train, build connections, develop and perform.
An important common factor is that all of them have like-minded people around them who share the same passion, and/or people who believe in their passion to fuel this common motivation. One artist found strength in friends who understood because they were also treated differently or misunderstood by others. These friends formed an important support network to ease the daily living challenges so that he could focus on the art creation in the earlier years. Another artist found a trusted co-creator in a family member and have been creating works together since young. Growing up together, disability does not come into play; family is just family. Three of the artists have been or are involved in performing groups, two of which are disability-specific groups. Disability specific performing groups provide a shared identity and sense of belonging because members understand one another through shared lived experience, common language and culture. One artist involved in a mainstream performing group appreciated the fact that the disability is not the focus in such a group and the performances the group are involved in are not disability-related and hence not charity-related. Being in a group has increased training and performing opportunities for the artists even though there are challenges in aligning creative vision and commitment level.
“It’s so much easier solo, everything is all about you, but the appreciation of the group is really high. When you perform in a group, the audience appreciate it more. I prefer to be in a group.”
“Our members are stable because we love to dance…if this group is no more, I don’t have to dance already.”
Another common motivating factor is having a purpose of their craft besides just enjoying it. Through their works, the artists want to tell a message, make a stand, make people think, tell the truth, the truth about the artist’s personal state, about society, about the world. The artists choose different extent to which their disability correlates with this purpose. While one of them has chosen to develop works that anchor around disability perspectives, two of them emphasised that disability is just one of the many things they want to talk about.
“My favourite part of my art form is to make people think. I think it is a very beautiful and creative process how to think of unique perspective which kind of come out as a new stuff that people have not come up with before.”
“The idea of doing this is to write the truth. If the truth at this point of time is sad then it is sad.”
One interviewee questioned the sustainability of passion as the main motivation.
“I know I belong to the stage….(but) no matter how much passion you have, it will die off if you keep hitting at walls all the time.”
Barriers faced by the artists
Societal attitude: disability associated with charity and pity
The most evident frustration by all five artists is how dominantly society associates disability with charity and pity and therefore sees anything related to disability, including art, the same way. Disabled artists are often expected to perform at zero or low fees, sometimes even having to pay to perform in the form of covering own expenses such as access services, equipment, props, transport, costumes etc. Non-profit organisations usually cite their lack of budget while corporate and government bodies see the engagement of disabled performers as a goodwill gesture to provide them with exposure and performing opportunities. Disabled artists are hence expected to be grateful to be given such platforms without much expectation of remuneration.
There is a strong criticism by the disabled artists of the intention of some event organisers who engage disabled performers to make the event appear more meaningful and inclusive on the surface. Ironically this comes with an unwillingness to provide access arrangements to facilitate the artists in delivering their best performance. This denies the disabled performers the opportunity to show the true quality of their art and possibly perpetuates the stereotyped association of disability with work of inferior quality. Such tokenistic approaches make the disabled artists feel oppressed and exploited.
The artists also felt that once the marketing and branding of events involve words like “disability” and “inclusion”, the type of audience attracted will come with the mentality to see the disability first before the art, and the mindset of “let’s be nice [since] they are different”. Audiences tend to associate disability with inferior work and hence have very low expectations. Two of the interviewed artists who have had experience being involved in mainstream events where their disabilities were not marketed, felt a vast difference in the focus of attention of the audience.
“No one ask me what’s wrong with me. They ask me where to get [more of my works].”
“If your first word is inclusive, diversity, they already instil a mindset of a freak-show. They will come with the mindset “let’s be nice they are different.”
“I don’t want to be an exhibition object.”
Lack of disability representation and leadership
All the interviewed artists expressed frustration in lacking a say in events and programmes involving them. One artist criticised how most local major arts and disability events and programmes are conceptualised, managed, marketed and run by people who do not understand the disability community well, and sometimes do not even understand art well. This results in many decisions made based on common assumptions and misinformation about the disability community, and imposing strategies and methodologies based on what works best for a mainstream event catered for non-disabled participants.
The earlier mentioned point about the marketing angle is one example because the combination of charity and pity is the best selling point by societal stereotypes. Another example is how performances are directed and created according to the mainstream standards of quality and aesthetics, and disabled artists are expected to assimilate into the fixed frame that may not showcase their best creativity.
“They never consider when we gave feedback and just ask us to make do.”
“It is all about us without us.”
Citing one key annual event for disabled artists as an example, one artist expressed disappointment on how the organisers compromised the artists’ interests in the name of wanting to enhance the quality of the event.
“Last time each group had an impact. Now the direction has changed. The groups are more restricted [by the creative direction] so they cannot be their best self. They want to up the quality, but in my perspective, I don’t think they have achieved it.”
Lack of education, training and exposure opportunities
The interviewees cited some barriers in education and training opportunities in the art form they have chosen. The education system here is deemed not conducive to develop disabled artists, with the rigid and cookie-cutter style catering only to general learners. One interviewee was denied entry to a polytechnic course related to his interest in performing arts because of barriers which led to him being unable to fulfil just one of the many components in a general fundamental module. Another opined that the whole system here poses too many barriers for disabled individuals who want to develop in creative fields. Citing herself as an example, this interviewee was grateful to be able to explore education opportunities overseas.
“I was not properly supported by the school system here. We are forced to choose one over the other. The rigidity of the system stifles creativity.”
Another artist observed that there are now more art programmes offered to disabled children in school but there is no follow up out of the school system. Few opportunities are available for adults who want to continue pursuing their passion after leaving the school system, or for those who start late in their life.
The interviewees expressed a general sentiment that it is hard to find good instructors, mentors and collaborators. One artist described with great exasperation how he has often been disappointed over the years when most instructors were only willing to work with the disabled artists for very short-term or one-off training.
“Without a good instructor, we cannot reach that kind of international standard. I have bigger dream to train in more professional genres but without a good instructor, we cannot reach that kind of international standard. So I just have to be contented with (current genre).”
Some said they were being wary of many instructors or collaborators who work with disabled artists for the novelty and to “look good on themselves”, “taking credits and appearing like a hero” as quoted by one, without the sincerity to actually understand the disabled artists’ strengths and talents and spend time to develop these.
“Many teach for the name, and they will ask for something in return.”
“It is not easy to find good partners. I don’t want the intention of the collaboration to be that of enhancing the reputation of the non-disabled. Like they just want to take credits and appear like a hero.”
Lack of Access to Funding and Grants
At least three artists felt that the application information of current fundings and grants such as process and criteria are inaccessible, not well disseminated nor easily understood. One artist also cited the amount of workload and time required in reporting after receiving a grant can be overwhelming. Another expressed how the whole grant system disadvantages the autism community for example.
“The requirements of grant traction is also anti-autistic. The whole need to network and sell and know what the neurotypical grantors are thinking – this is not an autism thing!”
One artist also expressed that some grants have too many criteria that are too demanding for disabled performing groups to meet such as a certain ratio of disabled and non-disabled members.
Funding is usually short-term, making it challenging for any substantial outcome to be evident. One of the interviewed artists whose group received government-linked funding expressed that the grantor organisation seems to be only aiming to hit certain Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and not at all sincere in developing talents in the disabled community. This barrier is validated by one of the interviewed collaborating artists who has much experience in applying for grants for disability arts.
“We are in a fast-food industry here… In a short time we need to produce amazing results, to hit all out KPIs and secure our ongoing outcomes… The grant system is not enough money for longer period of gestation and residency.”
The mindset of people with disabilities
All five artists expressed how the mindset of disabled people can add on to the existing barriers mentioned above. Three of the artists felt that many in their same community are easily deterred by the hard work required in arts. Some tend to fall back to the easier way out, to brand their art by marketing their disability through the charity and pity lens. Many disabled people might have chosen the charity route because they are too entrenched in ableist mindset themselves and have developed a deep inferiority complex. For these reasons, they cannot see themselves developing into leaders or role models for others nor do they envision themselves capable to be professional in their art. Many see their art-form as just a hobby and are unwilling or not interested to pursue their interest deeper to develop into passion or to strive for better quality work. All these perpetuate further the fundamental root problem of society associating disability arts with charity and inferior work, and undermines the potential of disabled people to have a stronger voice and ownership in the arts field.
One artist felt very strongly that the disability community here are too focused on their own differences and tend to blame other people for what they cannot get.
“If you want to be accepted by the general masses, then you gotta accept the general masses first… For us we are born to adapt. that is the number one thing you have to accept if you are disabled.”
“When you start initiating yourself, if you really work hard for yourself, people will come to you, no matter how long it takes.”
The interviewed artists identify themselves to be proactive, driven, committed and constantly wanting to create new and better quality works. They observe that these are quite lacking in other disabled artists or individuals with any interest in the arts. Hence the community of disabled performing artists who are serious in their craft continues to stay very small.
What do aspiration and progress look like?
In articulating how they envision their aspirations and progress, there is a commonality of wanting to have ownership, leadership, freedom to create on a recognised and respected platform. One artist wants to be able to produce more work together with other disabled artists and aims to start mentorship and create a platform to groom disabled leaders in the arts. Another artist wants to start producing original works that creatively incorporate disability elements. So far he has focused on honing his skills on the art form and considers incorporating disability elements aesthetically and meaningfully as another level in creativity which he has not yet attained. Another wants to be able to undergo professional training and perform on a national stage. And one wants to create works that are meaningful and timeless, as well as to collaborate with and be recognised amongst international artists.
It is emphasised that art is the freedom to create, regardless of whether one is disabled or not. One artist admitted feeling stifled and trapped after being introduced to the concept of the social and charity models of disability and the ongoing debate on what disability arts is. She started to question and judge her creations so much that she could not create any works, so she later decided not to be bounded by such ideologies.
The desire to be able to express what one wants and how, like other artists do, is articulated by two of the artists:
“Charity model is not just in the artistic disability world. In the non disabled world, we call it the sad song. It is the same whining in an artistic way… I want to be as free as I want. If I want to talk about disability then I talk, if not then don’t. It is just what I am experiencing now.”
“Why can’t the world be much more simpler? Why cannot do away with all these labels? My ideal world is just to be free man. Just Arts, Simple.”