I recently attended a talk by Ms Magali Finet, the speaker for Writing for and by Differently-Abled Youths during the 2017 All In! Young Writers Festival. Ms Finet first delved into the history of Very Special Arts (VSA) : it is an international organization about arts and disability and was founded in 1974 by United States ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. Its vision is that people with disabilities are empowered, contribute and integrate through arts.
Ms Finet mentioned, “Our philosophy is that we have to adapt to the person, they do not have to adapt to us. Because it’s harder for them and we need to be respectful of every difference .” She went on to elaborate on how art is a form of expression and is meant to show that those who are differently-abled are relevant and have a part to play. She also explained the four courses which focus on various aspects of art including performing, visual and literary arts as well as further education for those with a passion and ways to sell their art.
The addition of literary arts to the program is a relatively recent development, championed by Ms Finet herself. She had always had enduring love for writing and realized that VSA had visual and performing arts but lacked a literary arts program. To remedy this, she suggested poetry and short story classes and, at first, it was difficult for her to garner support from parents and the school however, she was eventually able to convince the school to do a pilot program. With the partnership of Ethos Books, they were able to hold their first workshop in June, 2015. At first, they encountered many problems, such as catering to all the participants needs as they had a very large age and skill range and finding a fully-wheelchair-accessible venue which was properly equipped, including the toilets. In the end, they managed to overcome the difficulties and the program was a success. This success opened up more literary classes at VSA and today, they are the first Singaporean organization to run such programs.
Ms Finet was accompanied by several student volunteers from Catholic Junior College (CJC) as well as Shawn Tan from VSA who shared their experiences of working with differently-abled youth and being a participant in the poetry workshop. One of the CJC volunteers, Jun Xiong, shared about his experience of working with Lysandra, who is wheelchair bound. He talked about how Lysandra’s process of brainstorming for ideas seemed unfocused at first but he soon realized that she was writing words that had the common themes of friendship and love. She is an optimistic individual, he shared, even when physiotherapy hurts. As Lysandra has Cerebral Palsy, she has difficulty sitting up but during the process of writing and performing her poems, she was sitting up straighter to read the poem. Jun Xiong also mentioned how happy her family was at Performance Day and how she inspired him to overcome his stage-fright.
Shawn Tan, an 18 year old beneficiary of VSA, shared his experience of writing and performing his poem. He is a martial arts master and dancer, combining his passions with poetry, he acted out his poem during Performance Day. During the process of writing his poems and eventually performing them, he faced some difficulty as his eye is swollen and he couldn’t write and read properly because of it. Nonetheless, he put up a remarkable performance, presenting two of his poems. All this just goes to show how talented and courageous differently-abled youth are.
This was followed by the volunteers sharing their greatest takeaways from volunteering. While they had qualms about being able to connect and pull Performance Day off, they soon realized that the beneficiaries of VSA are bright and mature, thinking beyond what the volunteers expected of themselves. They quickly became conscious of the fact that the beneficiaries didn’t really have a disability – they were able to accomplish so much – and that the differences between the two parties was small; all the beneficiaries wanted was love and acceptance.
Despite these success stories, the world still has a long way to go to being disability-friendly; most venues are not sufficiently equipped with wheel-chair ramps, tactile signals for the blind and most importantly, acceptance. On related note, Ms Finet shared some of her experiences that led to her working with differently-abled youth and one of them highlighted how we take being the majority of a physically and mentally able environment for granted. In university, Ms Finet was corresponding with people with physical disability through a pen pal system and it was “an eye-opener” of what their lives were like. She then did a project for the school, whereby all her classmates had to be “disabled” for an hour and they realized that the school was not at all built with those with special needs in mind.
When asked about the advice she would give to aspiring writers and differently-abled youth, Ms Finet said, “I would say to all of them : Just try. Just try, write something. You need to try and don’t give up. Don’t judge yourself too harshly because I’ve found that… that we are judging ourselves. Special needs or non-special needs, we are all judging ourselves and we think we can’t do it. But at the end of the day, it is just taking paper and a pen and writing words and that’s it you know? And then you make it something and you work on it. ” She continued, saying that inspiration is overrated and that it is hard work - “you want to try to say something, say it in a poem, say it in a short story, say it in a flash fiction, say it in a novella, try to find a medium that is the right medium for what you have to say and maybe you will take 5 years and maybe it takes 500 trials but you will end up doing that.”