British Council pushes for accessibility with China-UK Disability Arts Forum, Cheng Yuezhu reports.
Art viewing for many is a matter of choice, but for a group of people that option is often not even offered in the first place.
In a publicity video, the 2nd China-UK Disability Arts Forum offered a vignette of the art-viewing experience of three women with disabilities.
"This is my first time visiting the 798 Art Zone using a wheelchair. I used to go on outdoor tours, because many galleries I'd like to visit do not have accessible facilities. They simply rejected me with their stairs," says a woman who introduces herself as Panpan.
The forum was hosted on Dec 3, International Day for Disabled Persons, at the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center, with the goal of raising public awareness and participation in enhancing accessibility and inclusion.
As a co-host of the event, the British Council recognizes that it is not the people who are disabled, but the milieu around them is disabling them, as is expressed by two representatives from the organization, Matt Burney, director of British Council in China, and Rehana Mughal, director of arts at the institution.
"The forum was really an opportunity to convene people, particularly practitioners from the performing arts sector, and together to share knowledge, expertise, skills, ideas and developments in the area of disability arts and inclusion," Mughal told China Daily.
According to Mughal, the themes explored at this year's forum primarily focus on access to arts and culture, incorporating varied aspects from physical access to cultural experience.
The forum invites experts and practitioners from art and cultural institutes and NGOs in both China and the United Kingdom, to share their organizational and personal experience in promoting disability inclusion and inclusive arts.
Lucas Wang, artistic director of Inside-Out Theater, says that the theater has been equipped with accessible facilities and has been working with troupes and artists in conducting inclusive arts projects, but meanwhile discovering a lot of issues yet to be taken into consideration.
For instance, although the accessible facilities of the theater correspond to industry standards, the facilities are not often used, for many people with disabilities find it difficult to even leave their own house, let alone enter a theater venue. The art therapy projects are usually conducted within a limited span of time, unable to suffice over the long-term therapeutic timescale.
"How drama and art therapy can continue to be selected and used is in fact a broad issue concerning the operational system of an NGO, with a lot of work to be done in our country to improve and advance the system... We as an art organization can only do a very small part in it," Wang says.
Representatives from UK organizations also shared their experience via video, including Michelle Taylor, director for change at Ramps on the Moon, an organization that promotes the inclusion of disabled people in the theater industry, and Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine at the London Science Museum, which sets an example in engaging diverse social groups with innovative exhibition experiences.
"Accessibility covers the aspects of facilities, spaces, humanities, and interpersonal understanding. These are all important components of disability arts," says Peng Yujiao, founder of Beijing Leyirong Social Work Office.
The forum also marked the launch of "Access for Change", a platform initiated by the British Council and Body On&On Culture Exchange Center, also co-host of the forum, that endeavors to connect arts and cultural organizations from China and the UK.
"This is an opportunity for different cultural institutions here in China to come together around one common goal, and that common goal is about supporting access and also supporting inclusive arts, and working towards putting inclusive arts and disability arts on the stage," Mughal says.
Highlighting equality, diversity and inclusiveness in the arts and cultural landscape, the platform aims to eradicate the social barriers faced by people with disabilities, deepen the connection with the disabled groups, and engage them in art and cultural projects.
So far, five theater venues, five arts and cultural organizations, two NGOs and a few media organizations have joined the platform.
"I feel that the concern for disability and inclusive arts is not only a matter of justice, but also an issue that we need to work on together toward a common future, with the progression of social concepts and people's attitude," Ge Huichao, founder of Body On&On, says.
She says that via the forum, she hopes that China can draw on the experience of the UK in promoting disability arts and explore a pathway suited to the context of China.
"The globalized society we live in today is driven by both competition and inclusion. Competition brings about progress, but we believe that inclusion is a greater force and a subject issue meaningful in the longer term," Ge adds. "Inclusive and disability arts provide opportunities for everyone. In art experiences life returns to true equality."
The forum is among a diverse range of projects the British Council is working on in China to promote accessibility.
"Here at the British Council we are continuing various events and activities focused on inclusion and disability. For all of the work that we do actually at the British Council, inclusion, equality and diversity are very much at its heart," Mughal says.
The previous projects carried out in China by the British Council include the 2019 UK-China Deaf Film Online Showcase that hosted film screenings specifically for audiences with hearing impairment, and musicians in residence, which brings British musicians in exchange programs across China and enhances cultural understanding.
Facing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the organization is adapting its projects by transferring its exchange programs onto digital platforms, such as "distant dialogues", which allows people in China to connect online with musicians in the UK, and the digital collaboration funds, offering grants to UK organizations to carry out digital international projects.
"Despite all of those challenges, we've seen incredible resilience, imagination and creativity coming out of the art sector. Sometimes adversity breeds creativity and challenges make us look for new pathways and new ways of working," Mughal says.
"There is already some really good practice here in China ... We have seen at the disability arts forum this Mistakable Symbiotic Dance Troupe based in Guangzhou. They're doing some excellent work, so I'd like to see more organizations like that and I'd love to collaborate more with organizations like that, and encourage them also to collaborate with counterparts in the UK."