Arts and Disability

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Definitions and Scope


Community Arts

Disability Arts

Size of the Issue

-According to the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) about 4% of the population comprise persons with disabilities – including the main categories of physical, visual, hearing and intellectual impairment. Most recent figures quoted in the 3rd Enabling Masterplan 2017-2021 break this down into 2.1% of the student population, 3.4% of those aged 18-49 years and 13.3% of those aged 50 years plus. Most of the 186 support organisations in Singapore cater for persons with a specific disability and only SDSC offers a range of sports at all levels/ability groups. A recent presentation of the HeritageCare programme run by National Heritage Board noted that an exact figure is difficult to calculate as each individual’s own perception of a categorisation as “disabled” may vary [need references]

-Number of community artists or community arts organisations who work with people with disabilities [knowledge gap]

-Artists in Singapore who have disabilities [knowledge gap]

Desired impact for target group

1-High quality and innovative arts projects done by, for, with people with disabilities

2-Artists or creatives with disabilities have adequate skills, exposure and viable professional careers

3-Art and cultural content and institutions are accessible to people with disabilities

Needs and Gaps

Need for artists/creatives to be motivated to work with PWDs

Artists and creatives have a lot to offer, but may not be motivated to work with disadvantaged groups or apply their skills for community development

Existing Resources

VWO programmes -Project P.Inky (APSN) -MINDSCraft -Very Special Arts -Rainbow Centre (Art Therapy Programme) -YStars -Octoburst! (Children)

Gaps and Their Causes

1-Community arts perceived as less professional

2-Community arts not organized

Possible Solutions

1-Generate better understanding of the potential of art for the disability community

2-Mobilise artists through existing networks or new associations

Need for artists to work responsibly and ethically with vulnerable groups

Arts groups and social service organizations lack people with experience in managing community arts projects. As a result, a lot of the time, both artists and service providers are reaching out to each other but cannot quite craft projects in a creative and sensitive way to meet each other's needs. As Theatre group Drama Box associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling put it, "The social workers are very good at what they're doing, which is engaging the community. And the artists are very good at what they're doing, which is creating art. The question is, how we can partner these people, such that they can support each other.'" (See ST 3 June 2014).

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

1. Artists lack experience in working with disadvantaged communities

Most voluntary organizations do not conduct formal training for artists , for whom the learning is on-the-job (See ST 3 June 2014).The head of clinical services at the Singapore Association of Mental Health said that some artists have anxiety and hesitate to work with people who have a mental health condition. The association works with artists to conduct visual arts classes for people with mental illnesses because there are plenty of things which artists with no training may not know about, for example, knowing that watercolor can trigger certain reactions for people with schizophrenia because it is too fluid and it can be less uncontrollable than crayons (See ST 3 June 2014).

Artists also often struggle with ethical issues of commitment and their accountability to communities they are supposed to help. When they work with vulnerable communities, they might be accused of exploiting these communities for their own profit or fame.

Possible Solutions

1. More support for capability building & training / intermediaries

Certification may even be useful to ensure standards and ethical practice, especially since artists increasingly work with vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities. There are already artists who train social workers on certain art forms so that they can be the ones who engage with the clients without needing the facilitating of an artist all the time. Artists may be required to do grant writing, research or evaluation of their projects but many are not yet equipped to do this well. Consultation and advisory services can also provide much needed support for community artists.

Need for adequate resourcing and support for inclusive arts projects

Need for artists to be adequately resourced to implement arts projects for and with disadvantaged groups

Existing Resources




PA -

Gaps and Their Causes

1. Funders do not fully recognise the value of the arts Even though typical forms of community arts are used as a means to health or social well-being, many funders and stakeholders do not always appreciate the value of community arts for social good. A theatre practitioner remarked that “Sometimes, people wonder why they should give the artists money when they can give it straight to the visually handicapped. I think understanding the value of the arts is something that needs to change.” "Sometimes, you hear remarks like, 'Huh, you worked so long, I spent X amount of money, but you only do a show like that? You cater only to 200 people" (See ST 3 June 2014).

While there is more government support for community arts—and these have helped socially-engaged artists in Singapore secure more funding for projects—they still face closed doors when they seek partnerships from voluntary or community organizations to access the target groups they seek to work with. This is because social service providers have low public awareness of the value that the arts can bring to their client groups. Many of them think the arts is a ‘nice to have’ but have other priorities (See ST 3 June 2014).

One of the biggest obstacles for non-profits or social service agencies is coming up with the funds to pay the artists for their time and expertise. Mr. Christopher Yeow, executive director of Very Special Arts, said that: "We are a voluntary welfare organization and don't have much money to offer artists. A lot of it depends on their interest. We recognize that for artists, it's a job and they cannot afford to provide a voluntary service, so we pay them but we cannot afford to pay them market rate." (ST 3 June 2014)

Possible Solutions

1. Supplement funding from private sources In order to improve the presence and role that community arts can play, grantmakers can supplement the funding available from the government to catalyze more arts-based community development work. Funders can also focus on building the supportive ecosystem instead of just on community arts itself.

2. Research, networks, public engagement Platforms to demonstrate value of community arts

Need for high quality, innovative, inclusive arts projects

Existing Resources

"Inclusive" art workshop to encourage interaction between children with and without special needs. Run by Superhero Me, a non-governmental organisation that runs art programmes for children (ST 2 Oct 2017).

An Extraordinary Celebration by Extra.Ordinary People

True Colours Concert by Very Special Arts

Gaps and Their Causes

1. Client-based instead of community-focused arts Many of the community arts efforts in Singapore are not so much for a community as it is for a client type, members of who share a similar condition or experience, and who may or may not form part of a community. As community artists typically go through social service agencies to gain access to their client groups, these projects become focused on the client type that the agencies happen to be serving. Community artists have used art to engage with various vulnerable client types ranging from migrant workers , inmates and ex-offenders , people with disabilities , children from impoverished families or seniors in nursing homes . These artists typically use art to help achieve goals aligned with the social agency’s objectives for their clients: using art to create public awareness of the plight of distressed migrant workers for advocacy organizations; art projects and performances to help mentor and socially integrate people with disabilities; and the use of creative movement facilitated by a professional dance troupe to improve active ageing for seniors in nursing homes.

2. Community arts not fully participatory

State-led community arts initiatives also have the tendency towards less egalitarian collaborations. For example, in a PAssionArts Festival project, residents of a public housing block painted banners that graced the block’s entire façade. It was reported that a visual artist “led the effort, painted elements like dots and lines on the panels before they were given to the residents to paint on”. The artist explained that these elements served “as a visual guide to help the community freely express their emotions and messages” (The Straits Times, 2 July 2014). In fact, it is unclear if the relationship between artists and residents last beyond the conclusion of the project and whether residents take up more active roles after the initial contact with art-making. While there are many community arts projects happening in Singapore all year round, many seemingly take place on a project basis and quantity should not be confused with the quality of residents’ involvement .

Possible Solutions

exemplars: Sins Invalid is a performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.

People with disabilities need professional opportunities in arts and creative sectors

Need for people with disabilities to have opportunities to work in the arts and cultural sector in general. Not just about building the number of people with disabilities to engage the arts, but also about growing the number of people doing work in the arts and cultural sector in general. E.g. marketing, project management, etc. Goal is to have a viable career path established, not to ensure all artists have a viable career as we need to ensure competitive process.

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

Possible Solutions

• Draw inspiration from Oska Bright Film Festival (produced, managed and presented by a learning disabled team) [to elaborate]

• Shape Arts (providing opportunities and support not just for artists, but also for disabled individuals wanting to work in the arts and cultural sector) [to elaborate]

Accessibility of culture (content and institutions) to people with disabilities

• Need to grow diverse audience Demand-side growth? If there is no demand for consumption of the arts, and in particular disability arts, there will be little economic incentive to pursue the arts as a career?

• Need for cultural venues to become accessible to excluded groups with diverse requirements

Definition of accessibility -cost -relevance -physical access -ease of transportation and distance

Song-signing performances by ExtraOrdinary Horizons (ST 5 Oct 2017)

Existing Resources

A team of engineers from DSO National Laboratories (calling themselves Mod Squad, and as part of their CSR), modified musical instruments for children with special needs in SPD's EIPIC programme (ST 22 Oct 2017)

Rainbow Centre Yishun Park School runs workshops to encourage children with and without special needs to interact. Funding from the Lien Foundation and the National Arts Council. They include more than 530 children from pre-schools and special education schools who join the two-hour art sessions on weekdays. According to a Lien Foundation survey in 2016, of the 835 parents of special needs children who were surveyed, four in 10 think their children spend too little time in the community outside of school.Nearly half of those surveyed said their children do not have friends without disabilities (ST 2 Oct 2017)

Gaps and Their Causes

According to the National Arts Council, mainstream arts activities in Singapore quadrupled between 2003-2007, and museum visits and attendance at heritage outreach events doubled, as did the number of registered art-related companies. Between 2003-2012 ticketed and non-ticketed performances increased by 90% due in part to the opening of the Esplanade in 2002 and Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands in 2011. To put these figures in context, the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2015 report that, on average, audiences have a choice from around 22 arts performances and 87 visual arts exhibitions daily. Comprehensive figures for engagement by persons with a disability or the elderly are not available. Statistics from the National Heritage Board on visitor numbers at the Asian Civilisations (ASM) and Peranakan (TPM) museums, however, suggest that between 2013-15 visitors from vulnerable groups (ie the elderly, persons with disabilities and children with special needs) were likely to be first time visitors, which suggests a basic broadening in terms of participation (from BC, to insert proper references)

Physical access: “In the Built Environment, Singapore has embraced Unified Design principles and most buildings, certainly new-build, are accessible and include building-friendly features. However, there remains a gap between this basic provision and a broader inclusive approach that seeks to embed key features right from the design stage, and to encourage a comprehensive “friendly-building” approach that makes life easier for everyone. Future focus is likely to be on connectivity (e.g. within the community/to transport hubs), technology and service levels, over and above basic building design and physical adaptation.” (from BC, to insert proper references)

Relevance of programming and content: “Much of the current approach is focused around “active ageing” in the community but a recent report for the National Arts Council, based on interviews with participants of the Silver Arts Festival 2014, highlighted concerns over the potential cost to individuals wishing to participate in art and cultural events, and the limitation of overlooking the cultural importance of other family related activities (e.g. looking after grandchildren) - “Active ageing, and its myriad of activities (including arts activities) is hence not a one-size-fit-all solution to ageing issues in Singapore”. “(from BC, to insert proper references) It is important to recognize and respond to these cultural differences in terms of the variety of programmes that are of interest to different groups and how volunteers and caregivers engage with participants in terms of language/dialect/cultural references; again the HeritageCare programme illustrated these challenges when connecting with elderly care-home residents; also note the NMS Silver Heritage programme and Library@Chinatown.

Once-off instead of routine and institutionalised: “There are numerous examples of pilot inclusivity programmes and art & cultural events for vulnerable groups in Singapore, but some way to go before these move from being “special” or “one-off “ events and become embedded into daily programmes and planning; one example of this is the National Heritage Board move to schedule a regular “quiet Monday” as part of their normal routine so that members of vulnerable groups will feel more comfortable visiting without having to wait for a special event.” (from BC, to insert proper references)

Possible Solutions

ASK app of the Brooklyn Museum allows visitors to ask questions to crators of the museum that get answered via text messages. This also allows the museum to understand what the public needs.

Resource Directory

Access Resources in Singapore - a spreadsheet created by Producers SG that includes accessible arts venue, specialist, sign language interpreters, captions, audio describers, and therapist.

Advancing Disability (&) Arts in Singapore: The Practitioners’ Take (Sep 2019) - Researched and Written by Nix Sang. This research is for the final capstone professional project as part of the graduation requirements for the Master of Non-Profit Management programme offered by the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Abstract: "This study examines how disabled artists define their craft in the spectrum where arts and disability intersect, given that what counts as “disability arts” is often contested and negotiated. The study can facilitate disabled artists’ understanding of the intention and impact associated with their works across the spectrum of disability arts. It can also guide collaborating artists to consider aligning their personal values and motivation towards their craft with those of their counterparts with disabilities in collaborations. The study can provide policy-makers, arts managers, educators and related organisation representatives guiding principles informed by disability perspectives when developing the area of disability arts, including accessible and inclusive programming, talent development, policy-making and strategic planning."

Act 3 Theatrics

Feature article of R Chandran, Founder-Director at Social Space magazine

Asia Pacific Festival of Artistes with Disabilities

Access Arts Hub

Consortium of individuals and organisations with a shared agenda to make arts more accessible and appealing for people with disabilities.

Paul Adams

Paul Adams is the Learning and Engagement Manager at the Singapore Repertory Theatre. He is part of the team driving the Access Arts Hub, a consortium of organisations and individuals championing better access to the arts for persons with disabilities. 

Drama as Life Hack Workshop