British Council’s arts and disability focus in East Asia

By Joe Turnbull on August 30, 2018

Arts and Disability is a major focus for the British Council across East Asia. We hear from the British Council’s regional Theatre and Dance Programme Manager, Carole McFadden and in-country Arts Managers from Taiwan and Singapore Shu-chun Lai and Sarah Meisch Lionetto, respectively, to get a broad overview of the programmes and level of co-operation going on across the region.

Carole McFadden, Programme Manager Middle East and North Africa and East Asia, British Council

Can you explain your role at the British Council?

Panel debate
Ramesh Meyyappan – Panel Discussion, Arts & Disability Forum, Singapore 2017. Copyright Arts & Disability Forum

I look after two geographical regions – the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and East Asia. My brief is to feed into our overseas arts programmes with ideas/suggestions/new initiatives through performances, skills sharing workshops and talks/speakers.

Our work in the Arts helps artists to break new ground, support creativity and innovation, increase capacity by building skills to support livelihoods and cultural enterprise, extend safe spaces for creative exchange and contribute to research and policy.

Programmers and festival directors from the region usually invest a lot of time and money in bringing over UK productions so seeing the work first-hand and meeting the artists face to face has been a real game-changer. The separate programme of talks, debates and workshops has also provided rich context and sparked off ideas for conferences and talks to get the conversation started in places like Singapore, Japan and Korea.

Is arts and disability/access a big focus for the British Council in East Asia?

Yes, it is a major focus for our work over the next few years, in addition to the Arts And Ageing and Cities agendas.

As a funding programme, the Unlimited programme generates work which is showcased in the Unlimited Festival providing a regular moment for delegates (programmers, festival directors, artists, cultural leaders) to refresh their knowledge and keep abreast of developments and initiatives. This has really helped to maintain awareness and interest levels and sits well with our work which is developed over 2/3-year sustainable programmes.

The British Council has invested in funding delegates to travel to the UK for Unlimited and working in partnership with these same people we have been able to build sustainable and meaningful arts programmes. 53 international delegates attended Unlimited 2012; 92 in 2014; 100 in 2016 spread over London and Glasgow sites; 120 in 2018.

As an organisation, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is at the core of the British Council’s cultural relations aims and part of building trust, respect and understanding. Our work is centred on building meaningful, enduring and respectful relationships across different cultures. We cannot do this if we do not have a commitment to equality, inclusion and valuing diversity.

What are the flagship programmes you’ve been involved in, that you would like to highlight?

Marc Brew and Bora Kim
공·空·Zero: Restriction, Body and Time by Marc Brew and Bora Kim © HyeongGyu KIM


The final month (March 2018) of the UK-Korea Season was dedicated to a Festival of Arts and Disability – Beautiful Differences and included:

  • 11 Million Reasons to Dance photography exhibition.
  • Jo Verrent, Disability and Cultural Consultant, delivered a talk entitled Learning from 2012 London Unlimited Commissioned Programme and Festival.
  • Premiere of Good Morning Everybody – a dance collaboration between Candoco Dance Company and Korean choreographer Eun-me Ahn.
  • Sarah Pickthall and Jo Verrent delivered a leadership workshop programme with eight mid-career disabled artists and producers in partnership with IEUMS.
  • Premiere of 공·空·Zero: Restriction, Body & Time  – a dance collaboration between  Marc Brew and Bora Kim.


Barbara Lisicki and Sally Booth, disability arts trainers for Shape Arts, delivered a series of workshops in June in the Social Model and Accessible Event Training for staff at Tokyo Metropolitan Art MuseumEdo Tokyo Museum and Toyohashi Arts Theatre (PLAT). This was the third in a series of workshops aimed at staff of cultural institutions in the lead-up to the 2019/20 UK/Japan Arts Season.

How do the arts and disability sector(s) in East Asia differ from those in Europe?

The Arts and Disability sector is developing in some countries while in others, it has a long, long, way to go!  I feel that we have just got off the starting block in some countries like Singapore and Korea where the British Council has hosted two major conferences bringing arts organisations together for the first time to debate and discuss the issues. East Asia is looking to the UK for advice, support and expertise to build this sector to bring about social change and support their own disabled artists through skills and leadership training.

Are there any characteristics or barriers which are unique to the region?

Disability is hidden in some countries, particularly those where religious beliefs contribute to negative attitudes toward disability.

How has the development of arts and disability work come on since you started doing this work? Has there been a lot of change?

Yes – definitely. The Unlimited funding programme has helped UK artists to raise their game, take risks and collaborate with other artists to influence and diversify their practice. Our artists are creating high-quality work – from a content and creative point of view – and they are being invited by major arts organisations, venues and festivals to tour internationally. Not only does this introduce audiences around the world to the best of UK creativity but it helps to seed potential collaborations with local artists and share skills.

UK artists are taking their place on world stages but also helping to foster social change in some societies through speaking about their work and the UK’s journey in the Arts and Disability movement.

What does the future hold for arts and disability in the region?

In some countries, we are still at the start of the journey so hard to predict this but one of the British Council’s aims is to achieve the following five pillars through our arts programme:

  1. Sharing UK arts with the world – introducing audiences around the world to the best of UK creativity and creating new opportunities for artists and organisations to work internationally. We will also support reciprocal work into the UK.
  2. Fostering collaboration and networks – supporting creative people to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and developing sustainable ways of working for long-term prosperity.
  3. Arts for social change – extending safe spaces for culture, creative exploration and exchange; building trust, enabling dialogue and presenting marginalised voices; and supporting the protection of cultural heritage and expression of cultural identities.
  4. Capacity building – strengthening the arts sector worldwide by developing its capacity to innovate, reach new audiences and develop skills.
  5. Policy and research – shaping cultural policy and sharing research with the cultural sector in the UK and overseas.
Project Tandem
Project Tandem rehearsals, Singapore

Sarah Meisch Lionetto, Director of Arts and Creative Industries British Council Singapore

How would you characterise the Arts & Disability sector in Singapore?

The sector is still nascent and needs to be seen in the wider context of Singapore history a) as a very new nation and b) as a new nation with a recent history of arts education.

However, in spite of this there has been significant development in the last 2-3 years. Government initiatives have highlighted the desire for a more inclusive society and grassroots initiatives are starting to take place more organically. There is still a strong need to cultivate the social model of disability as well as the creative case for disability. There is a need to move away from the charity model of community crafts towards professional level work by professionally trained disabled artists.

Are there any instances of joined-up regional work you’ve been involved in?

Currently our activities have been mostly in Singapore only, however the Arts & Disability Forums have had a regional scope (in particular the one in March 2017 as part of True Colours) and we have had some colleagues from the region attending.

Is there anything Singapore’s arts and disability sector could teach the rest of the world?

Firstly, the value of having the government outline inclusivity as a priority and incorporate efforts for wider accessibility into their cultural planning (for the elderly and disabled communities).

Secondly, the value of being open to engage with and learn from the UK’s longer history of experience in Disability Arts.

Claire Cunningham with Taiwanese disabled artists
Claire Cunningham dialogue with disabled artists and community in Taipei. Photograph: Sandy Chi

Shu-chun Lai, Head of Arts and Creative Industries at British Council Taiwan

How would you characterise the Arts & Disability sector in Taiwan?

Positive and open to peer learning with other countries.

Do you do much work with other countries across the region?

We exchange information with Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea; however, the projects are quite independently operated in each country.

Is there anything Taiwan’s arts and disability sector could teach the rest of the world?

We are still at the learning curve, but there is increasing awareness and arts initiatives celebrating disability rights in Taiwan.

How does Taiwan compare to the UK on arts and disability?

I think in terms of cultural accessibility, Taiwan is at a similar level as the UK.  For artists’ access to co-creation opportunities, there’s space to grow and improve.

Read a profile of the disability arts sector in Korea

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