Look What I Can Do

Published on 19 January 2015

People with special needs take centrestage, challenging perceptions of what can be for disabilities and the arts.


When British savant artist, Stephen Wiltshire (below), came to Singapore last July to work on a 4m-by-1m drawing of Singapore’s city skyline, people turned up in throngs to watch him. Over five days, he created the masterpiece from memory, after just an hour-long helicopter ride.

Wiltshire, 40, was diagnosed with autism at age three, but he displayed a keen interest in drawing — something his teachers observed and encouraged. He went on to study fine art at London’s City & Guilds Art College and has since travelled the world sharing his remarkable talent.

Like Wiltshire, it is not uncommon for persons with special needs to express themselves through art, dance, theatre and music. The sea change would be accepting them in mainstream arts.

Arts Festival With a Heart

The Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) made a bold stand last year by inviting Theater HORA from Switzerland to stage Disabled Theater as part of its main programme.

Described as “brave and compassionate”, the performance, directed by renowned French choreographer Jérôme Bel, saw solo dances by young artists with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

This was followed by Festival Heart: Into the Wild, the culmination of a two-week workshop facilitated by Swiss theatre director Michael Eber, featuring 36 Singaporeans with mental disabilities.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen took a risk and it paid off. Brutally honest, the performances not only challenged public perceptions about mental disabilities, but also the arts.

“I think the over-arching belief is that the arts is important for us all, including those with special needs,” says Jean Ng, a theatre actor, director and educator who has worked with the Down Syndrome Association (Singapore) for over a decade. “Through the arts, I’ve seen their joy, creativity, sense of self-worth and confidence.”

ART & SOUL A performance of Disabled Theater by Theater HORA at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014.
Photo  Kevin Lee, Courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts

Arts Venues That Open Doors

The Esplanade has an on-going Community Engagement initiative that saw students from Tanglin Special School and Grace Orchard School invited to watch Something Very Far Away, a ticketed performance held during last year’s Octoburst! A Children’s Festival.

Octoburst! also featured students from two Special Education (SPED) schools — APN Katong School and Grace Orchard School — in public performances, giving them the thrill of practising, preparing and performing at the Esplanade.

Over at The Substation, art exhibition, Exploring Art, graced its Gallery last December, showcasing artworks by Y-Stars, a group of teenagers and young adults with intellectual disabilities who share a common passion for visual and performing arts.

The exhibition is part of an on-going programme by artist-facilitator Felicia Low that provides youths with special needs the opportunity to showcase and sell their art pieces.

IT’S SHOW TIME! Students of Grace Orchard School put on a performance which featured singing, dancing and circus acts during Esplanade’s Octoburst! — held in conjunction with Children’s Day in Oct 2014.
Photo  Regina Aun

Businesses That Buy In

Much as it’s important for special-needs individuals to be exposed to and to perform in the arts, it’s also important for them to have the possibility of an income stream. Businesses that support the artistic pursuits of such individuals are a precious piece in the puzzle.

Pathlight School, Singapore’s first autism-focused school, has an Artist Development Programme that handpicks gifted youths to be trained under professional artists.

Artworks by Pathlight students are available for sale at Starbucks Coffee’s Fullerton Waterboat House store and Professor Brawn Café. These businesses also provide employment for young adults with autism.

It’s an encouraging start. But much still needs to be done to foster an inclusive arts environment in Singapore. For instance, making all arts venues wheelchair-friendly for individuals with muscular dystrophy and other physical disabilities could be one such initiative. More resources also need to be channelled to programmes that develop special-needs talents beyond the school years.

Like all of us, those with special needs have aspirations. Like us, they too want to express themselves. When we realise all individuals possess a unique set of weaknesses and strengths, we will see no need to think any differently about the special ones in our midst.

Art for Autism: Diversity Exhibition is on at the Fullerton Hotel Singapore, East Garden Foyer Gallery & The Fullerton Heritage Gallery, 29 Jan – 2 Mar.

DRAW ATTENTION Artworks by artists with autism from Pathlight’s Artist Development Programme: ‘Conversations’ by Tan Syang, 16, and (below) ‘Shophouse Along Joo Chiat Road’ by Phua Yijue Glenn, 18. 
Photos  Autism Resource Centre & Pathlight School

Helping Hand

Bringing the arts to those with special needs with two initiatives.

WeCare Arts Fund aims to increase arts access and participation in the social service sector. Jointly offered by the National Arts Council (NAC) and the People’s Association’s network of five Community Development Councils, it will fuel some 300 arts programmes, reaching out to at least 2,500 beneficiaries, including people with special needs.

The NAC-SPED Partnership Programme promotes the use of the arts as a pedagogical tool in Special Education schools, so that artists and teachers can co-develop and co-teach customised arts-based lessons.

For details, visit www.nac.gov.sg

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