In March, some of the Shape team travelled all the way to Japan and Singapore, to take part in panel discussions, deliver Disability Equality Training and lead access audits across a range of arts and cultural venues. These sessions were facilitated by the British Council and provided an opportunity to continue the international dialogue around arts and disability. Shape Programme Coordinator Fiona Slater caught up with our Access Trainers Barbara Lisicki and Zoe Partington to share some of their experiences.

Can you give us a taster of the type of sessions you led in Japan and Singapore. What sort of topics do you cover and how is it delivered?

Zoe: We were asked to open up the thinking around Disability Equality in the arts to help the cultural sectors in each country to develop and enhance their inclusive way of working with disabled artists. Also to improve access for disabled audiences to shows in theatre, heritage, music, visual arts and all other art forms.

We started with the basics and asked everyone to respond to the question ‘What is Disability?’ We then discussed everyone's answers, how this leads to an understanding of the social model of disability, and why it's useful as a framework to inclusion and accessibility.

Who took part in the training and what do you hope the participants gained from the sessions?

Barbara: We had a range of people who participated in the training … arts practitioners, University and education staff, British Council staff, artists and performers. We know that people gained insight from the discussions that took place within the sessions, but were also struck by the will and determination to go back to their workplaces and colleagues and begin to put practical changes in place to extend and develop their inclusive practice. We recorded their action points, a part of the training day that got participants to identify what they would do differently at work.  So, for example, one participant was determined to change the work her organisation did in ‘Special’ Schools so that it was less medical model and more focussed on creativity and discovering pupil potential. Another participant in Singapore was determined to question and change Gallery policy on refusing to admit blind people with guide dogs – currently the dogs are not allowed. Wow!

The shift in narrative from medical to social model was a powerful learning outcome in both Japan and Singapore. 

“The power of that inclusive programming at a high profile gallery was something all curators could replicate and that is something the UK could learn from

 Shape Access Trainer Barbara Lisicki

What have you learnt or will you take away from both of these countries and their approaches to Disability Art and access for disabled people?

 Zoe: The passion and energy to make changes happen and the respect that each country has for an ageing population who are entitled to full access to their own culture and arts. Recognising and valuing disabled people from all areas of our society. Their rail and underground, MRT transport systems are also superior to ours from an access perspective!

Prior to this trip you have worked closely with British Council staff in Brazil. What are some of the outcomes of this partnership?

Barbara: The benefits of this partnership have emerged over time. We know that in Rio, a new network has emerged between the various cultural organisations and individuals we have worked with, so that work can be shared and new initiatives coordinated. Additionally, accessibility has become more high profile and the definition of accessibility has become more expansive and inclusive. New ways of increasing access are being piloted. We have begun to have input into the thinking around the Cultural Olympiad.  In Sao Paulo conversations across the cultural sector are now informed by the social model perspective and old practices are being questioned. It has become very clear to us that international partnership working is such a productive and valuable experience on both sides and is definitely to be encouraged.

Finally, can you both give me one highlight from the trip?

Zoe: I was delighted to see a disabled artist, Mari Katayama, profiled at the Mori art gallery in Tokyo in an exhibition that wasn't designed specifically for disabled artists.

The power of that inclusive programming at a high profile gallery was something all curators could replicate and that is something the UK could learn from. In Singapore the Bay Gardens is an absolutely iconic and world class place for disabled visitors to flourish and enjoy an amazing, accessible, visitor experience. 

Barbara: With such an awesome visit (and I NEVER use such hyperbolic terms in normal conversation) it is difficult to select a single highlight. However, I must comment on the extraordinary level of hospitality afforded to us by everyone we met. They were friendly, welcoming, open to discussion and genuinely concerned about accessibility and did everything possible to ensure my access requirements were met. This included the very hospitable experience of drinking hot sake, regularly topped up by the hosts as is traditional, apparently. Great tradition!

I loved the visit to the Saitama Arts Theatre because I got to wear a hard hat, but mostly because the Director and staff reacted in such an enthusiastic and direct way to suggestions and had no problem with any aspect of our critique. Their Gold theatre company for older people sounds like a revelation. We met people in Yokahama from an arts initiative called The Slow Movement. Right up my alley … love the name.

Many thanks to Barbara and Zoe - and to our hosts in Japan and Singapore.  Our trip formed part of a whole host of activity and debate around disability, arts and not to forget the 2020 Paralympics – just four years away! The timing is especially appropriate: two new Japanese laws will be coming into effect this month which will strengthen the rights of disabled people in the workplace and reinforce the requirement for ‘reasonable adjustments’ across the whole of society. 

More information on Shape training and how to make your organisation more accessible can be found at the following link:

Banner image: Zoe Partington in discussion with a group in Japan