With Support, Disability Arts Can Grow...And They Should.
Disability arts provide authentic stories often missing in the arts scene.
Penang-based contemporary artist Frankie Lim. During the pandemic, the artist, who was diagnosed with autism when he was seven, turned his yearning to connect with others into a series of art pieces.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our lives, and it’s been particularly challenging for individuals living with disabilities. The sudden change in routine can be startling for people with autism spectrum disorder. The visually impaired people struggle to maintain a physically-distanced space without being able to see it. Staying at home for people with cerebral palsy is a challenge as they require regular face-to-face therapies to manage their chronic pain.
While they find themselves in isolation, some of these individuals overcome remarkable odds by using arts to help them get through these troubled times. Evidence shows that the arts can help reduce stress and anxiety, which are omnipresent during this pandemic.  More importantly, some even feel that there is no better time than now to give voice to the differently-abled community through disability arts. After all, the pandemic has somehow forced us to experience the challenges long faced by the differently-abled community: social isolation and movement limitations.
Penang-based contemporary artist Frankie Lim, who was diagnosed with autism when he was seven, made use of the lockdown by creating new art pieces. The isolation sparked his creativity and he turned his yearning to connect with others into a series of art pieces that explore themes of growth, joy, fear, sadness, and isolation.
“Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. Frankie has been taking a break from art for a few years. Now, thanks to the pandemic, he has gotten back in touch with his art and has created enough material for an art exhibition — “AR/UTISTIC: Diaries on the Spectrum”. The exhibition showcases Frankie’s art pieces created before and during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Through this exhibition, Frankie aims to celebrate and inspire those who are like him, who can relate to him through his art. He hopes that more would dare to be different and be brave enough to challenge boundaries,” says Frankie’s sister, Angelina Lim.
To be sure, though, Frankie isn’t the only one to make good use of his time in isolation. Together with directors Peggy Ferroa and Michael Chua, producer Joanne Tay embarked on a mission to increase the visibility of individuals living with disabilities through “Perspectives”, an independent documentary project. The documentary is a digital exploration about life as Singaporeans with disabilities, told through music, monologues and works of art. It also features soundscapes by the Harmony Community Choir, a choir that primarily consists of young adult choral singers with autism and other learning disabilities.
Harmony Community Choir, a choir that primarily consists of young adult choral singers with autism and other learning disabilities, provides the soundscapes for the “Perspectives” docudrama.
“Disability arts has gained international prominence for telling stories with marginalised bodies that are often not seen or heard. The creative case for disability argues that differently-abled bodies bring new ways of seeing and unique, authentic stories that are often missing in arts and entertainment.
“Their narratives make us realise that sometimes, we tend to prejudge what doesn’t fit into our everyday lives, yet they are part of our community. We need to be reminded that beneath our exteriors, we are all humans with the same need to feel safe and to belong. They also have the desire to be the best that they can be,” says Ferroa.
Stephanie Esther Fam, a freelance public speaker who has cerebral palsy, thinks that the film casts a stark light on the community’s unseen challenges, unheard voices, and unspoken desires. “The common misconception is that I am also intellectually disabled just because I am a wheelchair user. My brain is just like any other person on the street.
“Disability is not a one-size-fits-all item. Neither does it define who you are nor what you can do. Everybody in this world has different needs. So why is it so difficult to acknowledge that people with disabilities have different needs? Why don’t we find out about each other? Ask us what we want. Ask us what we need. Ask us what we like”, says Fam, who lends her talent to the project.
Visually impaired sculptor Victor Tan, who also contributes to the project, shares Fam’s sentiment. “We have the same curiosities as everyone, goals just like everyone. If we are driven by passion and a sense of purpose, nothing can stop us,” he says.
Another performer in the project Lim Lee Lee, who lost her eyesight when she was an infant, hopes that people will find different perspectives of the community through the docudrama. “I also wish that they will spread the message of love, hope and resilience in the community and keep the hope going so that this spark of fire can go on and on,” says Lim.
Stephanie Esther Fam, Lim Lee Lee and Victor Tan.
At its heart, disability arts are not just about empowering the community. It can enrich the broader arts scene with diverse perspectives, creating culture, and redefining the identities of the disabled community. When nurtured, disability arts can be a powerful way of exploring meaningful and authentic social inclusion while combating prejudice towards people with disabilities.  Progress in disability arts such as these makes us dream of a more inclusive world, one that makes us excited about emerging from the pandemic.
Catch the “AR/UTISTIC: Diaries on the Spectrum” exhibition and the “Perspectives” docudrama screening at George Town Festival 2021. Click here for more information.
 “Art Therapy Is More Important Now than Ever During the COVID-19 Pandemic” Resources to Recover: A Mental Health Website for Families and Individuals (2020).
 “Moving Beyond the art-as-service paradigm: The evolution of arts and disability in Singapore” Lee Hing Giap, J., Goh Ze Song, S., Meisch Lionetto, S., Tay, J., & Fox, A. (2019).