Consider trailing a wheelchair user in his daily commute. He traverses the city on wheels, navigating the contours of streets and alleys from point to point. He encounters, from time to time, an inability to enter buildings and spaces: an uneven pathway, an absence of ramps, a missing elevator. And these devices, when present, as alternatives to what is normal, often require some roundabouts to access.
“I always talk about the social model, which doesn’t look at a person’s disability but at the barriers in place,” says Grace Lee-Khoo, the founder of Access Path Productions, a company based in Singapore that works with disabled communities to produce theatre productions, participatory drama workshops, and Disability Awareness Through the Arts (DATA) training. Lee-Khoo recognises that disabled persons, present in all societies, are yet often overlooked — and punished for their perceived abnormalities. “It’s because there aren’t accessible features. It’s not the person’s medical condition, but the infrastructure and the environment that are disabling,” she says.
Lee-Khoo has had, as she calls it, a very “bohemian” childhood. She lost her mother at a young age, and her father made parenting up as he went along, she says. “He would take me to Geylang, known for its red-light district, for supper on a Wednesday night, and afterwards, he would ask if I wanted to go see the prostitutes,” she says. “And I’d be like, ‘What’s that?’” Her father would explain the concept of prostitution to her, how some turn to the profession because of poverty to make money fast; and make her question everything she saw. “And of course, everyone else was like, ‘What is this man doing?’” she says. In another instance, Lee-Khoo remembers a friend who was to have an abortion. When she told her father, he urged her to be there for the friend, and suggested ways she could give advice. It was surely going to be traumatic and mark the young lady for life, he had said, and gave Lee-Khoo money to buy tonics to help her friend heal. “Most parents would have asked their children to stay away. But to my father, these were all teachable moments,” she says. “So there was always reflection, and awareness and attention towards people who are different.”
Wesley Loh / Memphis West Pictures
In "And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore 'd' Monologues" by Kaite O'Reilly, a production commissioned by a British consortium of disability arts, Unlimited, fictionalised monologues inspired by real lived experiences are presented by disabled actors in multiple languages.
In 2018, working with collaborators from the U.K., Lee-Khoo put in a proposal for a show featuring a full cast and creatives who all live with disabilities, and who work professionally in theatre and the arts. Research and development for it took months, before Lee-Khoo finally won an international commission from Unlimited, a British consortium of disability arts. The show, titled “And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore- UK ‘d’ Monologues,” premiered at the National Museum of Singapore in May 2018 and went on tour in the U.K., opening at the South Bank Centre in London in September 2018. “We were defiant, naughty, and talked about careers, media representation, sex, and real lived experiences of disabled people in Singapore and the U.K.,” she says. “It was a dialogue, about diversity, difference, and how disabled people are the biggest minority group in the world.”
Access Path would be born from the show, out of duty and necessity. “In Singapore, people expect a sob story, ‘pity porn,’” Lee-Khoo says, contrasting this cultural attitude to that of the U.K. She believes that Singapore largely adopts a charitable model towards disabled communities. “They zoom in on his wheelchair, urine bag, and the drooling, and say that he needs help, and so forth,” she says. As charity fundraisers capitalise on the medicalisation of disabled people, it has cultivated a dependency culture for the disabled, something that Lee-Khoo wants to change — to one of self-help and self-advocacy.
At Access Path, creatives with disabilities arrive, and Lee-Khoo’s team communicates with them. Through sign language interpreters, Braille documents, or spaces large enough for wheelchair access, her team then allocates budget and resources to best ensure that every team player is put on a level playing field. “Everyone is a complex individual with different needs. At Access Path, we will ask what you need in order to do your best work,” she says. “But of course, we also look at talent and ambition.” To her, excellence, despite disability, counts for more in changing how Singaporeans view disabled people: Simply placing a disabled man on stage to struggle at acting capitalises on the objectification of his disabilities; whereas disabled individuals with the talent and ability to perform can become role models — and ultimately represent their communities.
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Singapore for the Light to Night festival in 2020, Lee-Khoo directed a show, titled "Self Portrait: A Performative Tour" which featured writings of multidisciplinary artists and the public. The performance was made wheelchair-accessible, guide-dog friendly, and supported by sign language interpreters and captioning.
For Lee-Khoo, a project is successful when performers not only put up a good show, but become better performers, in areas such as voice quality, physicality and creativity. “I always say that when you make theatre, it’s actually a rehearsal for real life, a very conscious engagement,” she says. For example, in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” an actor playing Macbeth contemplates murder, and deals with the guilt after committing murder; “and then you leave the room, and nobody dies. It’s all safe,” she says. “But you will have evolved, transformed on an intellectual and emotional level.”
Besides theatre productions, Access Path also runs programmes with day care centres for disabled people. In these centres, Lee-Khoo initially observed that people, especially those at the severe end of disability, hardly socialise. “At first, [the agencies] wanted one-off classes, but I realised that these communities needed long-term engagement,” she says. “So we went in for seven sessions, and they immediately saw improvement. My process is very participant- centred; I’m not going to make them do Shakespeare, but they can move to music, be creative, and some have naturally good voices.” She creates a space — a sort of playground — with her knowledge in applied theatre and engages with participants. These sessions allow her team to look out for performative talent, which can be nonverbal, and engage with it. “Then, we see what they are inclined towards, and create stories from them,” she says.
Our Better World
With Access Path, Lee-Khoo also runs participatory drama workshops and curated programmes with day care centres for disabled people.
Lee-Khoo also brings these participants out to public cultural venues, such as the Singapore ArtScience Museum, once a month (although Covid-19 has halted the schedules). Managers of these spaces often express initial nervousness and uncertainty about their readiness to host large groups of people with diverse disabilities, but “I tell them the only thing to do is to let us come and take over the space,” she says. Venues, even those that have considered accessibility issues beforehand, can then test drive and rectify their systems and infrastructures.
From Lee-Khoo’s experience, people often expect to completely overhaul their spaces and retrain staff from scratch — yet, often, only little adjustments are required. These monthly excursions generate exposure for disabled people, while continuously transforming public spaces, making them more infrastructurally inclusive. “This is the change I want to see at the end of the day — that accessibility is not as daunting as we think, and is just this collective duty of care,” she says.
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