Art That Binds
British artist and diversity advocate Jo Verrent shares insights on shaping a more inclusive society.
BY AUDRINA GAN
ILLUSTRATION THAM SZEMIN
hen Jo Verrent touched down in Singapore after a 13-hour flight from the United Kingdom in March, she was, like most visitors, struck by the heat and humidity.
“It was still snowing in the UK when I boarded the flight,” she recalls. The British speaker, writer and diversity consultant had traded the cold of Yorkshire, where she lives, for the warmth of Singapore where she was a keynote speaker at the Arts and Disability Forum from March 29 to 31. The forum was organised by Singapore’s National Arts Council in collaboration with Singapore International Foundation and British Council Singapore. It brought together UK and Singaporean arts practitioners as well as representatives of relevant organisations from the social and healthcare sectors to share insights on encouraging greater social inclusiveness through the arts.
“By involving disabled people equally – as artists and audiences – we can all benefi t from the sharing of our perspectives. Any crossborder exchange is useful. When we see how other societies work, we look even harder at ourselves.”
Jo Verrent, British speaker, writer and diversity consultant
Verrent, who is hearing-impaired, is also the senior producer of the Unlimited programme in the UK, the world’s largest commission programme for disabled artists. It provides funds and mentoring support for disabled artists in the UK, with the aim of showing that their work is of high quality and can appeal to anyone who appreciates good art.
She says: “For me, the best art is one that gives new perspectives. While the quality of work of disabled artists is no different from that of ablebodied artists, the former may provide a perspective that audience members have not seen before.”
When people see a reflection of themselves in the works presented, that is when art becomes a force for inclusion, says Verrent. “Many disabled people feel on the edge of society. So, incorporating and sharing elements of their experience in their art allows them to be heard, seen and acknowledged,” she says.
As part of her advocacy work, Verrent hopes to challenge the notion of disability as a medical condition. She argues that people are disabled by the physical environment and people’s perceptions of their disabilities. She says: “A person in a wheelchair can’t get to a place because it doesn’t have a ramp or a lift. He is limited by the steps in front of him.”
CREATING AN INCLUSIVE SOCIETY
She considers the Arts and Disability Forum an important step in shaping a more inclusive society. She says: “Disabled people have as much right to be represented as any other group in our communities. By involving disabled people equally – as artists and audiences – we can all benefit from the sharing of our perspectives. Any crossborder exchange is useful. When we see how other societies work, we look even harder at ourselves.”
She says that while the UK is not a perfect example of inclusiveness, it has made advancements in areas such as arts and culture. “Every cultural building in the UK has to consider access to the disabled, and every cultural organisation has to show what it is doing to involve disabled people. We also have some dedicated funding through programmes such as Unlimited,” she explains.
She adds that the UK adopts a multi-layered approach to the issue by working with young people, professional disabled artists, and audiences to build an ecology that connects the disabled with the community. She believes that a similar trend is already emerging in Singapore.
She says: “I found people who were hungry to do more for equality, but who wanted the government to show its commitment as well.” This, she says, was especially evident in her interactions with the country’s young people. They told her that the disabled should not be seen as needing pity, but as people who are disadvantaged by the barriers put up by others, such as the lack of physical access as well as the lack of access to education, information and communication.
She cites Glasgow-based theatre performer Ramesh Meyyappan as a good Singaporean role model for fostering inclusivity. Meyyappan, who was born deaf, is regarded as one of Scotland’s leading disabled artists. He was awarded a commission under the Unlimited programme in 2012.
Says Verrent: “So many people told him he couldn’t work in the industry, that his deafness would be a barrier, and he has exploded that myth. I know many deaf and disabled people who see Ramesh as a role model. He has shown that he can create great art irrespective of any disabilities.”
In order to see more Singaporean artists like Meyyappan, who is breaking down both cultural boundaries as a Singaporean artist in Glasgow and the disability barrier created by society, Verrent says providing opportunities and access to the disabled is crucial. She explains: “It’s about opening up training and support routes so that all disabled people interested in the arts have a chance to access training and development. Not everyone will become world-class artists, but some people will, and disabled people deserve to be in that group as much as anyone else.”
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