The hardest part is overcoming invisible barriersBy Chen Si’an
Thanks to my involvement in accessible art projects over the past few years, I’ve been able to collaborate with disabled friends who who are passionate about art accessibility. Our communication and common effort may not appear particularly different from that of any other closely knit team: we set aside prejudices and stereotypes in order to engage in sincere, constructive dialog. But at the same time, this team is special in certain ways, including the hidden cognitive disabilities that some of us have. As Peng Linqian points in the below interview, we must abandon preconceived notions of “natural-born ability” if we wish to achieve genuine connection and equality.
The three disabled persons who participated in this interview were all born in the 1990s, and they live in Beijing, Suzhou, and Chongqing, respectively.
Was there a particular episode or phase of your childhood that increased your desire to participate in cultural life in a public way? That is to say, not just reading or watching TV at home, but going out and interacting with more people (regardless of whether or not they are also disabled), and communally enjoying or establishing an open cultural life? What makes that episode or phase of your childhood important to you?
Tian Yunfan: One Christmas Eve, I participated in a flash mob performance of Christmas carols at an Eslite Bookstore. The rehearsals before the performance took place on the second floor of a small cafe, and when I saw the long, narrow staircase, I almost turned around and went home. Imposing on the kindness of others to carry my wheelchair up the stairs felt to me like making trouble for other people, not sparking new friendships. I was the only disabled participant, and I worried that I was disrupting the integrity of the performance. But I love flash mobs, and when I auditioned, everybody applauded me very enthusiastically, so I persevered until the day of the performance. This experience helped me overcome some of the self-doubt in my heart.
Tian Yunfan | © Tian Yunfan
Guo Wancheng: The first thing I think of is the moment that I decided to move to Beijing. I had just graduated from middle school, and I was talking to my clarinet teacher. He said he hoped that I could get out more, encounter different people and things, and engage more with society. And just like that, I called the Beijing School for the Blind (北京盲校) and signed up. It was very easy. At the time I was only sixteen years old, but when I think back on it now, I can see that the moment I decided to move to Beijing shaped who I am today, and made me stronger and broadminded.
Peng Linqian: As I grew more aware and accepting of my status as a deaf person, I discovered that I was very interested in advocacy. Participating in arts and cultural life is a choice to which everyone has the right. Even though disabled people suffer from certain physical or mental disabilities, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the desire to participate in cultural life. One of the reasons we want to participate in more public cultural activities is so that everybody understands the difference between “they don’t want to” and “we think they don’t want to.”
Peng Linqian | © Peng Linqian
In recent years, you have all been active in promoting arts accessibility and encouraging more people with disabilities to express themselves through artistic means and participate in cultural life. What was the impetus for you to get involved in accessibility in the arts?
Guo Wancheng: My very first encounter with arts accessibility was back in 2015, when I wrote a script for a short film and participated in shooting it as well. The film itself may have been a bit contrived, but the experience of able people, visually impaired people, and hard-of-hearing people working together on this film showed me that there should be no delineation in the arts between able and disabled people. In fact, there should be no delineations at all, because art belongs to everybody. That was the first time I participated in anything that connected people with disabilities with the arts.
Guo Wancheng | © Guo Wancheng
Tian Yunfan: My inspiration came in the form of an arts festival. When I attended the second Luminous Festival, I encountered a multinational, inclusive, accessible arts event that not only featured art by people with disabilities but also provided accessible versions of the artworks for visually impaired and hard-of-hearing audiences. I thought to myself: are there alternative methods of sharing artistic experiences that aren’t available to some people with disabilities? And so I recorded an audio description of a French stage play that really moved me when I saw it, because I wanted to dispel the feeling that it wasn’t available to people who couldn’t see. In order to avoid the limitations of my individual perspective, I spoke with visually impaired friends about the value of my narrated version. Their feedback helped me see new perspectives on how audio description can be done.
Peng Linqian: During my childhood, I experienced many vexing moments in which someone expressed “I don’t think you can do this” to me. I started studying piano at the age of four or five, and later also studied dance and painting. When I was seven, I lost my hearing, and after that, I couldn’t do anything related to music, because my acoustic nerves had suffered severe damage. Even with hearing aids, I couldn’t accurately distinguish pitches.
When I was seven years old, I was enrolled at the best school in the city. Something happened there that still makes me angry today. There was a performance on campus, and the teacher sent everybody but me to take part. I was the only one left in the classroom. Because I couldn’t hear, I wasn’t able to participate in such activities, and my “well intentioned” teacher thought that I didn’t need to participate. It was as if as soon as I was identified as having a disability, society and the people around me unconsciously deprived me of certain rights: the right to participate, to right to decide for myself, the right to enjoy things, and so on.
What do you think is the greatest difficulty that you’ve encountered while working with the disabled community? What do you think is the disabled community’s greatest need in cultural life?
Tian Yunfan: The hardest part is overcoming invisible barriers. These barriers are not physical objects; they are barriers in people’s minds. Before a cultural activity even begins, people with disabilities are usually excluded on a subconscious level, and the possibility of their participation is often never even considered. The disabled community’s greatest need is to be seen. The more we are seen, the more we will gradually be recognized in the considerations of the outside world. That’s the only way for the world to become more inclusive, and as that happens, people will develop richer lives and feel more satisfaction on a spiritual level. We can only begin to break down the limits that exist in people’s minds once we’ve attained that first crucial step of being seen.
Peng Linqian: In my work with the disabled community, I have found that there are a lot of differences between people of different ages with different disabilities and levels of advocacy awareness. There are spectra and strata within the disabled community in China. Many disabled people do not have a strong sense of identity or advocacy. The greatest wish of the majority of disabled people I meet is to live like “a normal person.” That is not such a difficult matter for an able person, but for disabled persons, being respected, making a living, ensuring their safety, enjoying life, not being left out—they have to expend twice as much effort as anyone else to achieve these very ordinary things.
There’s a big difference between young people who are growing up with disabilities today compared with older generations. More people are willing to publicly express themselves, participate in cultural and artistic projects, and advocate for accessibility culture. We have already seen a lot of concrete changes. What is your experience of these changes? Is there a sense in which disabled middle-aged and older people and their self-expression are being overlooked?
Tian Yunfan: More and more young people with disabilities are using arts and culture to express themselves and to connect with non-disabled people. This lends them more self-confidence as they begin to see the value of being part of a special group of people, and their perspectives become more open and free. In my experience, middle-aged and older people with disabilities are less inclined to express their own needs. In some ways this reflects the shortsightedness of our society, because while young people represent vitality in the present and hope for the future, older people in fact embody the situations that all of us may face as we age.
Peng Linqian: Younger people have an advantage, which is that they live in a period of rapid technological development. When I was in school, there still wasn’t speech-to-text technology, sign-language translation apps, or platforms for studying the arts, let alone video-sharing platforms like Bilibili, Douyin (TikTok), and Kuaishou. The arrival of these tools has made it easier for people to express themselves, participate in popular culture, and use technology to engage in artistic activities.
Different situations call for different solutions. To take a field I’m relatively familiar with for example: older people who grew up hard of hearing are in fact invaluable resources because they know the sign languages of local dialects. But they must be respected by younger hard of hearing people, and we as a society must pay sufficient attention to them for their sign language culture to be handed down to future generations.
Guo Wancheng: As I mentioned above, there are big differences between disabled people of different generations. One manifestation of those differences is that younger people have the courage to explore more professional options. Disabled people’s public self-expression and interaction with non-disabled people are improving with each passing generation. For example, ever since Li Jinsheng became the first blind person to take the National College Entrance Examination [in 2013], more and more people with impaired vision are participating in the exam. And ever since Yongde screen-reading software became more widely adopted, visually impaired people are able to use electronic devices to a much greater extent.
Today, more and more organizations in China have recognized the importance of promoting accessibility in the arts. But when we consider the actual needs of the community, there is still quite a bit of room to grow. In your work and your experience, what issues in the realm of accessibility advocacy in arts and culture have yet to be truly acknowledged? What can we do to keep making progress in the future?
Guo Wancheng: The lack of involvement of people with disabilities is the main reason why there is still so much room for improvement in promoting their needs. Often, advocates are relying on their own knowledge and imagination to produce products and experiences for disabled people, but there are gaps between their understanding and real life. The challenge remains providing solutions that actually adopt the perspective of the people whose needs aren’t being met.
Therefore, solving problems from a “needs” perspective is the most effective approach. There’s a very apt quotation from the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: “Decisions that affect us must not be made without our participation.” This approach provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities, in the sense that developing accessibility solutions is a new professional field. Whether it’s working as an ambassador for Access for Change or developing products that allow disabled people to participate in arts and culture, essentially what you’re doing is creating sincere and authentic dialog between people.
Peng Linqian: I remember a discussion I once had with someone who said something very interesting. He said that text-to-speech technology made it easier for hearing people to engage with deaf people, and so it was suitable for all people with hearing impairment to use, since that was the mainstream choice. I do not see it that way. First of all, no cultural activity or product should be intended to “make it easier” for nondisabled people to interact with people with disabilities. That perspective reflects a kind of ableist arrogance. Accessibility should be a two-way street: not only allowing people with disabilities experience the world, but also allowing nondisabled people to see more diversity. For true equality to be achieved, the nondisabled majority should abandon preconceived notions of “natural born ability.”
IntervieweesGuo Wancheng, “Senior” visually impaired person and amateur writer in the music field, believes that visual impairment is only a state of mind.
Tian Yunfan, born in 1994, Grade One Physical Disability [according to the Chinese disability classification system], uses written language to explore the perceptual freedom of the arts. WeChat public account: Sundayliver.
Peng Linqian, Chairperson of the Chongqing Liangjiang New Area Zhilong Social Work Services Center, is a bilingual (Mandarin and sign language) deaf person. In late 2020, Peng served as the curator-in-chief of the first annual Lumen Barrier-Free Children’s Art Festival [please verify festival name with author if possible], a not-for-profit art festival focused on accessibility for children.
1] “Persons with disabilities should have the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes about policies and programmes, including those directly concerning them”