Syncing Efforts Across Borders to Empower Disabled Artists

For the first time in Singapore, a leadership and coaching programme for disabled artists was organised collaboratively between the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), Very Special Arts, National Arts Council, and the British Council.

Artists from Malaysia, Singapore and the UK came together for the inaugural Sync Singapore Programme 2019 comprising coaching sessions, training workshops and a public talk.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development-led Enabling Masterplan looks into a wide range of considerations for persons with disabilities, ranging from meeting the basic needs of improving their quality of life and building capacity within the sector to developing high quality services and laying the roadmap for an inclusive community that ensures their active participation in the larger society. Beyond these well-meaning initiatives, there is also a need to build a strong core of leaders within the disabled community so they can lead the change from within.

Enter the Sync Singapore Programme, a four-way partnership between the SIF, Very Special Arts, National Arts Council, and the British Council. It is designed to work with a broad range of disabled artists and arts managers across disciplines and abilities who are looking to change their creative working lives for the better through reflection and learning. The programme was developed and facilitated by professional disabled leaders based in the United Kingdom (UK), Sarah Pickthall and Jo Verrent.

(From left) Sync participants Malaysian Anuar Lim and Singaporeans Alvan Yap, Raymond Lau and Dawn-joy Leong created models of allies in the disability arts sector during an exercise during the five-day workshop.

After successful runs in the UK, Australia and South Korea, the programme made its foray into Singapore from 8 – 12 July 2019 with an inaugural cohort of ten artists – nine Singaporean, and one Malaysian. Besides disabilities and long-term health conditions, each of the ten participants had another thing in common: a dedication to their chosen craft, and a passion to build an inclusive and vibrant arts scene in their respective countries. Over a week-long programme, these artists were exposed to intense sessions combining leadership theory and personal coaching support. They explored new ways to understand themselves and their arts practice as well as potential barriers to success.

Malaysian participant Anuar Lim shared, “I am grateful to be part of the Sync Singapore Programme. I was able to meet with nine other Singaporean disabled artists for the first time, including blind and autistic people and I learnt a lot from their life experiences. I am inspired by Singapore’s efforts to support disabled artists to develop their leadership and hope to embark on new collaborations with artists here. The programme motivated me to transform myself from an artist to an art producer, and eventually to lead art for all!”

Singaporean participant Md Ammar shared, “I have always focused on the creative development but never on how to get funding and building relationships through networking. This programme has allowed me to be more confident and more aware with what resources is available for me.” Ammar envisions a future which allows the disabled and able-bodied to look beyond stereotypes and misconceptions to influence youth positively. Fellow Singaporean Mui Rui Yi  echoed his sentiments, “I hope that disability arts will be a safe space for disabled artists to express themselves without having to entertain pity from others and that we deserve the same amount of critic and applause as the general arts scene.”

The rich perspectives and experiences of one of the trainers, Sarah, was not just for the artists. Nearly 80 people who attended Sarah’s public talk on “When Disability and Digital Collide” took away a variety of examples of how technology can be leveraged to include persons of disabilities, to move the needle from accommodating them to empowering them with choices.

(Co-founder of the Sync Programme Sarah Pickthall (left), gave a public talk on the topic, “When Disability and Digital Collide”. She shared a variety of examples of how digital technology can be leveraged to empower persons with disabilities and create more inclusive and accessible environments in the arts.

Sarah cited several examples including those which transcended disabilities and even nationalities to bring about positive change. A particularly heartwarming example was that of the collaboration between two doyennes of their respective sectors: Scottish deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie working with Singaporean para-equestrian Laurentia Tan to compose music for the latter’s participation in Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Spearheaded by British musician Ruth Montgomery’s Audiovisability venture to involve deaf artists, this collaboration was an apt example of how individuals from different communities can come together to make the world a better place.

Such endeavours – both in Singapore and overseas – require partnerships, which Jean Tan, Executive Director, SIF, described her in welcome remarks as key to growing the arts for good ecosystem, particularly in disability arts. The Sync Singapore Programme is a step in that direction and embodies hope for the creation of an artist ecosystem for the disabled, by the disabled.

*Update: The organisers of the public talk “When Disability and Digital Collide” wish to make a correction on the acknowledgement of the work ‘And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues’ made by the speaker. The work is written by Kate O’ Reilly with Peter Sau as senior collaborator, not co-creator. See here to view the work and read the full list of collaborators.

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