The Art of Inclusion

Two hundred participants from over 14 countries shared ideas on how to leverage arts and culture to build a more inclusive society at the Arts & Disability Forum 2017.



lasgow-based Singaporean theatre practitioner Ramesh Meyyappan has received critical acclaim for his solo acts and collaborative performances, which combine visual and physical theatre styles to create strong visual narratives. He has been named Best Actor twice at the annual Life! Theatre Awards, which honours outstanding theatre productions in Singapore.

These achievements have not come easy for Ramesh, 43, who was born deaf. Apart from having to establish himself as an artist, he faced other difficulties that made him feel excluded as both a performer and member of the audience. For one, there is often a lack of sign language interpreters to facilitate discussions and debates on performing arts; and subtitles and sign language interpretation are usually missing at art performances. That is why he believes that building bridges between disabled and non-disabled communities is critical in promoting inclusivity.

(From left) Keynote speakers Ramesh Meyyappan and Myra Tam sharing takeaways from the discussions with the guest of honour for the Arts & Disability Forum 2017, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu (far right).

Despite having moved to Glasgow, Ramesh continues to collaborate regularly with non-disabled Singaporean artists. He said: “These collaborations are important as they let others, including Singaporeans, understand how they can work with a deaf person like myself. Hopefully, they will see that it is no different from collaborating with those who can hear.

“For me, inclusive arts involves sharing the same stages and platforms and not having separate events for the deaf or the disabled.”

He highlighted these insights during an artist-sharing session at the Arts & Disability Forum 2017, held from April 20 to 21 at Singapore’s Enabling Village, which champions inclusivity. Co-organised by the Singapore International Foundation, National Arts Council and the British Council, the forum aimed to raise awareness and build capacity towards greater social inclusion through the arts.

Themed Shaping Perspectives And Enabling Opportunities, this year’s event brought together over 200 participants from over 14 countries, including keynote speakers from Singapore, the UK and Hong Kong, to explore opportunities for meaningful artistic collaborations in the disability sector.

Art practitioners and organisations, professionals from the social sector, and key agencies also took part in multi-sectorial panel discussions, focus group discussions and interactive workshops to exchange on and build capacity towards promoting greater inclusion through the arts.

To illustrate the difficulties in getting two artists who do not share the same physical abilities to work with each other, participants at a workshop held during the forum were told to pair up and draw a pineapple together in two minutes by holding on to the same pen. Each was told to have a clear image of how he or she wants to draw the fruit and not to let the other take control. They were also not allowed to communicate with each other throughout the process. The resulting struggle led to many teams failing to complete their task.

The exercise aimed to show how, without shared experiences, it was difficult for non-disabled and disabled artists to collaborate. It was conducted by Dr Alice Fox, deputy head at the University of Brighton’s School of Arts in the UK, as well as lecturer of the Master of Arts programme in Inclusive Arts Practice. Through the workshop, Dr Fox hoped to equip artists who are interested in collaborating with persons with disabilities (PWDs) with the necessary know-how.

Making the case for inclusive arts, Dr Fox focused on how supporting creative exchanges between disabled and non-disabled persons was important to artistic creation, and how the collaborative process enabled artists to learn from each other. She said that PWDs have a lot to contribute to the arts because of their different life experience, and excluding them from the arts scene would make it a lot less vibrant.

She cited the example of a fine arts drawing session she had conducted for fine art students and PWDs. She said: “The drawings of the live model by the students were pretty good but the drawing styles were similar. The students were humbled when they saw the works of the PWDs, which had so much diversity and creativity in them.”

Keynote speakers Dr Alice Fox (far left), Ramesh Meyyappan (fourth from left) and Myra Tam (fi fth from left) taking part in a panel discussion on overcoming challenges to promoting inclusivity in the arts and disability sectors.

The forum also explored ways to enable everyone to access and enjoy the arts. Myra Tam, executive director of non-governmental organisation Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong, shared ideas on how art practitioners can implement inclusive practices in both their programming and art spaces. Her organisation leverages the arts to promote equal opportunity for PWDs, as well as to build a more inclusive society.

“These collaborations are important as they let others, including Singaporeans, understand how they can work with a deaf person like myself... For me, inclusive arts involves sharing the same stages and platforms and not having separate events for the deaf or the disabled.”

Ramesh Meyyappan, Singaporean theatre practitioner based in Glasgow

Among other things, Tam showed how a mobile application could be used to help the blind access the artworks on display in an art space by providing audio descriptions of the art pieces as they move around the space.

Ramesh also challenged art practitioners to think of ways to incorporate sign language interpreters or subtitles into their performances, so that audiences can focus on enjoying the performance rather than watching the interpreter or reading subtitles.

Beyond the forum, Dr Fox and Tam expressed hopes of fostering collaboration between Singapore, the UK and Hong Kong to further promote inclusive arts through cultural exchanges and cross-border exhibitions between artists. Such collaborations are critical, said Tam, because artists from different regions can help to inspire each other.

The points raised during the forum aligned with Singapore’s goal to improve inclusivity for all through the implementation of its Third Enabling Masterplan, which is a five-year roadmap put together by a committee of private and public sector representatives to build a more inclusive society for PWDs. The masterplan guides the development of programmes and services to support people with disabilities and their caregivers in Singapore from 2017 to 2021. Focus group discussions were held during the Arts & Disability Forum to source for ideas and collate community responses, which will expand upon the recommendations from the Third Enabling Masterplan.

Ramesh said that there was already much inclusivity in the country’s theatre scene when he first started out as he was given opportunities to perform and teach despite being deaf. But he spoke about the importance of being recognised as an artist first, and not a disabled person. He said that one of the reasons he was able to find success as a theatre practitioner was because his work was given exposure in mainstream art programmes around the world, including in Singapore and the UK, which helped raise his profile as an artist, without his being labelled as disabled. He added: “I’d like to see Singapore art venues and events open their doors to other deaf and disabled artists, affording them the same opportunities that I’ve been fortunate to benefit from.”

He also said that Singapore could do more to ensure that there is equal access for everyone in all aspects of society, especially in the area of education, and not just in the arts.

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