Literature Review

Definition of works where disability and arts intersect

Practitioners, academic scholars, arts producers and consumers have varying understandings and articulations of terms that describe works where disability and arts intersect. Definitions of disability arts offered by overseas scholars include “artwork by people with disabilities that reflects a disability experience, either in content or form” (Sandahl, 2006), and disability-identified arts are works that “embrace and advance the political, artistic, and cultural objectives of disability arts.” (Decottignies, 2016). More specific to performing arts, Garland-Thomson defines that “disability performance art is a genre of self-representation, a form of autobiography, that merges the visual with the narrative” (Garland-Thomson, 2000).

In the local literature, the team behind the analysis paper “Arts and Disability in Singapore” proposes the definition as a spectrum as follows (Lee, 2018):

[Image description] The diagram shows a linear spectrum with the left end labelled with the bold heading “ARTS & DISABILITY” and right end labelled with the bold heading “DISABILITY ARTS”. Below the headings are 4 columns of text to show examples along the spectrum. From left to right: 1. Community arts (no disability agenda) (more amateurs) e.g. Arts and crafts lessons. 2. Nondisabled artist (some have disability agenda) e.g. play about deaf experience. 3. Disabled artists (some without disability agenda) e.g. painter with Tourette’s 4. Disability-identified (disability agenda) (mainly professionals) e.g. shows challenging normal presentations of disability.

This spectrum anchors mainly on two factors: whether there is a disability agenda and the level of professionalism of the artists.

At a recent work publicised as ”the first-of-its-kind Disability-led Residency at library@orchard”, Dr Dawn-Joy Leong defined Disability Arts as “work produced and led by disabled people, and reflecting disabled people’s culture, focal topics of disability and lived-experience”, while Disabled-Led Arts Practice was defined as “work produced and led by disabled people, but not necessarily focusing on the topic of disability”.

For the purpose of discourse in the Singapore context for this study, the varying definitions and perspectives of what constitutes disability arts are taken into respectful consideration. Hence the connotation of Disability (&) Arts in this project title is used to refer to the entire spectrum of works and practices where disability and the arts intersect.

Meaningful participation, inclusion and access in the arts

What counts as meaningful participation, inclusion and access in the arts is also contested. In Singapore, most works and programmes relating to disability and arts are pitched as a form of service or therapy, reinforcing the medical model of disability and undermining the potential of expression from the artists as “an important tool for reflection that helps raise critical questions about the appropriate meanings of disability” (Lee, 2016). This is not unique to Singapore. As expressed by Barnes, such a traditional response to the issue of disabled people and the arts is based on paternalism (Barnes, 2003). Such a medical lens inevitably leads to an association of disability with “the less fortunate”. This results in the common stereotype that the quality of art by disabled people is inferior as the main purpose of such art “appears to be concerned about raising awareness and funds – rather than appreciating their intrinsic qualities” (Yap, 2018).

A predominant way of appreciating art by disabled people, that the disability community finds problematic, is related to the concept of inspiration porn. The term and concept was popularized by the late disability activist and comedian Stella Young (Young, 2014). Jan Grue proposed the following definition: “Inspiration porn is the representation of disability as a desirable but undesired characteristic, usually by showing impairment as a visually or symbolically distinct biophysical deficit in one person, a deficit that can and must be overcome through the display of physical prowess.” (Grue, 2016). When applied to performing arts, there is a tendency to focus on the “courage and grit” that the disabled performers are displaying “in spite of” their disabilities or impairment (Yap, 2018) instead of appreciating the quality of the art form that they are bringing on stage.

Practices in the name of inclusion without an authentic disability lens can also be oppressive, leading to tokenism and exploitation of the disability identity for marketing and branding purposes. Disabled artists often have little control over how their disability is marketed or portrayed in the performance. Sandahl, a disabled theatre practitioner, cited several personal experiences how her impairment was often used to create meaning over which she had little control, and that she could no longer tell whether the audience was having pity for the character she was playing or for herself (Sandahl, 2005).

More than just participation, inclusion and access

Disabled artists do not want to merely participate or be included in the mainstream arts. Inclusion is often associated with assimilation into the mainstream culture. When applied to the arts, it can infer the expectation of disabled artists to conform to aesthetic norms (Lee, 2018) or defining quality by mainstream criteria and standards.

Disabled performers are able to offer much more to the arts scene in defining what a good performance can mean beyond the narrative of ‘overcoming disability’. By defining their own aesthetics, they are able to create a genre of the art form of their own. Kupper expressed that “through the performer’s ‘manipulation’ and ‘rewriting’ of their bodily experiences, they are able to represent them through their cultural and political consciousness, rather than tacitly and passively accept the mainstream discourses of their experiences” (Kupper, 2003). Siebers opined that “disability aesthetics refuses to recognize the representation of the healthy body – and its definition of harmony, integrity, and beauty – as the sole determination of the aesthetic. Rather, disability aesthetics embraces beauty that seems by traditional standards to be broken, and yet it is not less beautiful, but more so, as a result.” (Siebers, 2010)

Taking reference from other countries

Many countries have mature disability arts field and articulated national strategies or guidelines, as well as well-established disability art organisations. These can be referred to and adapted for Singapore’s context. For example, Arts Council England has published “Disability Access: A Good Practice Guide for the Arts” (Arts Council England, 2003). Unlimited in the United Kingdom(UK) is an established arts commissioning programme that enables new work by disabled artists to reach UK and international audiences (Unlimited, 2018). The Australian government published the “National Arts and Disability Strategy” (Department of Communications and the Arts, 2016). In Japan, The Nippon Foundation DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS national project “seeks to convey the significance and value of diversity by breaking down boundaries and spurring interaction” (Nippon Foundation, 2017). Other useful national initiatives include having a diversity rating for productions such as the UK’s Creative Case for Diversity Rating (Arts Council England, n.d.), as well as national awards such as New Zealand’s Arts Access Awards (Arts Access Aotearoa, 2019).

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