Art Accessibility Overcoming Invisible Barriers

Physically disabled Chen Liting and an instructor practise modern dance at a disabled persons activity center in Beijing.
Physically disabled Chen Liting and an instructor practise modern dance at a disabled persons activity centre in Beijing. Photo taken on 28 February 2012. | Photo (detail): Jason Lee © picture alliance / REUTERS

Due to her involvement in accessible art projects in China, author Chen Si'an was able to ask people with disabilities on how inclusion could be reached. In an interview, Peng Linqian, Tian Yunfan and Guo Wancheng tell her how to achieve real communication and equality.

The three disabled persons who participated in this interview were all born in the 1990ies, 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? Why is joint participation and the establishment of a more inclusive cultural life so important to you?

Tian Yunfan: Once, I participated in a Christmas performance at Eslite Bookstore in my hometown. The rehearsals took place on the first floor of a small cafe with a long, narrow staircase. At this sight 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. When I auditioned, everybody applauded me very enthusiastically and I loved the event, so I persevered until the day of the performance. This experience helped me to overcome some of the self-doubt in my heart.

Guo Wancheng: The first thing I think of is the moment that I decided to move to Beijing. A talk with my clarinet teacher motivated me to call the Beijing School for people with visual impairments 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. I want people to understand that there is a difference between “they don’t want to” and “we think they don’t want to.”

In recent years, you have 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: It started 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 people with and without visually and hearing difficulties 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.

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 certain stage play.

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. 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.
Wang Xuyang, an art teacher, teaches painting to students majoring in computer graphic design at Shaanxi Urban Economy School. Wang Xuyang, an art teacher, teaches painting to students majoring in computer graphic design at Shaanxi Urban Economy School, a special vocational school for students with disabilities in Xi'an in Northwestern China's Shaanxi Province. Photo taken on 9 September 2019. | © picture alliance / Photoshot 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 recognised 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.

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.
Artists of China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe perform a thousand-hand Bodhisattva at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 31 August 2017. Artists of China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe perform a thousand-hand Bodhisattva at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 31 August 2017. | © picture alliance / Photoshot
There is 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. 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, 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. 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 people with hearing impairments, 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: 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.
The photo shows Fan Ziteng, a member of the rope skipping team of Nanchang Municipal School for blind children attending a training session. The photo shows Fan Ziteng, a member of the rope skipping team of Nanchang Municipal School for blind children, attending a training session in Nanchang, in East China's Jiangxi Province. Consisting of 12 children with visual impairment, this rope skipping team has won multiple awards in several national competitions. As their coach Xu Li says, children could benifit a lot from rope skipping exercise, learning to overcome difficulties. Photo taken on 12 October 2020. | © picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency | Zhou Mi Today, more and more organisations in China have recognised 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. 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.” Essentially what you’re doing is creating a 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. I do not see it that way. First of all, no cultural activity or product should be intended to “make it easier” for non-disabled 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 non-disabled people to see more diversity. For true equality to be achieved, the non-disabled majority should abandon preconceived notions of   a “natural born ability.”