Advocates: Grace Lee-Khoo

Everyone should have access to the arts, even those with disabilities.

Advocates: Grace Lee-Khoo

Only 12,000 persons with disabilities make up Singapore’s labour force of 2.26 million. Lee-Khoo’s Access Path Productions organises theatrical and cultural events, shares stories of the marginalised and provides disability arts and awareness training for everyone.

“When our first performance And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues was sold out, it signalled to us that Singapore is ready to be inclusive. Our international cast of deaf and disabled performers was also nominated for this year’s The Straits Times Life Theatre Award in the Best Ensemble category—it’s unprecedented! The show was live-streamed to four countries as we believe there should be no limits to making our work accessible.

“I used to teach English literature and drama, but in 2013 I realised that in order to educate more effectively, I needed to practise professionally. I left teaching to become a freelance performer. Through teaching, I learned that in a safe space, ideas can be shared, debated and refined with guidance; and that ideas bear the potential for change. I believe that attitudes shift paradigms. So even though I had to face nerve-wracking auditions day after day, the environment to fail repeatedly was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. After some reflection, I embarked on a master’s programme in Applied Theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

“Applied theatre is the practice of theatre and drama in non-traditional settings and/or with marginalised communities. I learnt to use it to ethically connect with marginalised communities and respectfully affect attitudes and mindsets without using a top-down approach. For example, if I go to a homeless shelter to do a play about homelessness, everyone including myself will have their barriers to overcome, as opposed to a professional stage setting. But they have complete autonomy over how they want their stories to be told.

“Access Path is a disruptor because we preserve the voice of every individual and honour their experiences. But we also explore the possibility of self-transformation through role-playing. We believe there is no right or wrong in creative choices. Instead of placing the onus on a person’s condition, we focus on the access requirements for each participant to be included.

“We never use the word ‘handicapped’ in our performances. It’s offensive to me because the root meaning of the term comes from cap in hand. That’s the description of a beggar, isn’t it? Not a lot of people know that. So I use the term ‘disabled’ instead because it flips the script. It is society that disables with its hostile infrastructure and attitudes, so we shouldn’t blame the deaf and disabled community. Reverse our years of social programming and instead of viewing us with pity, ensure that we are equitable to one another.

“And if you are disabled, do you just want to work in a bakery even if you have no interest in baking? If you have artistic inclinations, do you want to professionalise it? If yes, you still have to work hard at it just like anyone else.

“To facilitate the ambitions of the disabled, Access Path conducts Disability Arts Awareness and Confidence training to get everyone on the same page. We also run outreach programmes that aim to facilitate meaningful exchange. It’s not a numbers game — there are never more than 20 seats per session, including teachers and caregivers who support us. This is why I insist on proper training for all volunteers and that’s why we need more teachers.

“In November and December, we will invite disabled artists to co-conduct a special needs teacher training programme. Among them is Jodi-Alissa Bickerton from Graeae Theatre Company in London, which champions the inclusion of deaf and disabled people in the arts. It is always about the community for us, so for this upcoming workshop, we welcome everyone who is interested in inclusive drama practices, from artists, students and teachers to caregivers, to join us. We spread the love and change one starfish at a time!”

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