Drop the labels, recognise the work

Organ builder Adriel Yap (above) found a safe space in music.
Organ builder Adriel Yap (above) found a safe space in music. PHOTO: 3ACES ADVERTISING
Pianist Azariah Tan, who wears a hearing aid, is an award-winning pianist.
Pianist Azariah Tan, who wears a hearing aid, is an award-winning pianist. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Artists and arts professionals with disabilities juggle their dislike of labels with the desire for greater understanding from others.

Award-winning actor and theatre-maker Ramesh Meyyappan, 42, who was born deaf, says: "In terms of supporting deaf or disabled artists, stop labelling them. Collaborate with us and recognise our talents, skills, insights and experience."

He is based in Glasgow and often returns to Singapore with shows acclaimed for a magical blend of mime and body language.

His newest work, Off Kilter, to be presented here from Oct 11 to 14 by TheatreWorks, is literally magical. With the help of illusions that currently enchant his six-year-old daughter, Meyyappan tells the story of a man with mental health issues who feels his life is no longer under his control.

"I wanted to identify the isolation felt, the fear, anxiety, confusion, deep sadness and even anger," he writes in an e-mail message.

He attended the Singapore School for the Deaf and Upper Serangoon Technical Secondary School and is a graduate of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. He was the artistic director of Hi! Theatre, a professional troupe of the deaf which operated from 1986 to the mid-noughties.

Isolation and communication are often themes in his works. He twice won The Straits Times' annual Life Theatre Awards for Best Actor - in 2009, for playing a lonely signalman in Gin & Tonic & Passing Trains; and in 2012 for Snails & Ketchup. Snails & Ketchup, later worked into Skewered Snails, received a £45,800 award from the Arts Council England and was featured in a major arts festival alongside the 2012 London Olympics.

He is working with Singapore actor Peter Sau on The Singapore 'd' Monologues, a project featuring fictional monologues from real-life artists here with disabilities.

Alongside financial support from the National Arts Council and Singapore International Foundation, he says it helped that his work was judged here for its professional quality and not patronised because of his disability. "I was given many opportunities to put myself and my work out there for real scrutiny as a performer and creator, without the 'deaf' label. Singaporeans understood that the work, and not the label, was what was important. That is something that has stayed with me."

Azariah Tan, 26, would also rather be seen as a musician first, though the media likes to capitalise on the fact that he is a deaf pianist.

He has bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which means he was wearing a hearing aid when he won first prize in the senior category of the National Piano and Violin Competition in Singapore in 2009 and then two awards at the 11th International Chopin Competition in Asia in Japan in 2010.

A graduate of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Tan just completed his doctorate in piano performance at the University of Michigan. He is back in Singapore to teach, perform and record his first album.

He says he, his teachers and those who made his hearing aids had to be clear about how his perception of music, performance and daily life were affected by the hearing loss. Audiologists have worked with him to fine-tune his hearing aids so he can "best perceive music and do well when interacting socially".

At the Singapore conservatory, piano professors Thomas Hecht and Albert Tiu encouraged him not to give up learning music despite his hearing loss. Prof Tiu gave Tan feedback on the sound he made, so the pianist could "realise the difference in my perception and reality".

In Michigan, Professor Logan Skelton arranged for Tan to sit close to him on the stage during class, rather than relegating him to the audience seats further away.

Tan says: "This allowed me to understand what he was saying. It also allowed me to hear and participate better in that class setting."

Apart from performers, there are also arts professionals who have overcome social challenges by turning to the arts.

Organ builder Adriel Yap, 48, for example, was excluded from social interaction in class for much of his school life in Singapore. His autism - Asperger's syndrome - was not diagnosed until 2007, when he was already established in Britain.

He has all the paper qualifications of high intelligence: a master's by research at the National Institute of Education here, and 12 years with famed British firm Harrison & Harrison building, repairing and restoring pipe organs, including at King's College Chapel, Cambridge and Westminster Abbey.

At age nine, he was diagnosed with minor brain dysfunction and so he had a desk job for national service instead of active duty.

"I didn't like playing games with other children - I could cope with chess, but other games that involved lots of noise and running about were difficult. I still don't really know how to play with other people and social interaction like banter is difficult."

Music became his safe space, especially once he started playing the organ for his church. "It was a place I could be myself, away from other people."

Music offered a social context for him to learn to interact with others and, also, he says wryly: "People are more tolerant of eccentric behaviour if a person has a valued skill."

He would like Singaporeans to stop measuring people with traditional rules. "We usually ask, 'How smart are you?' Perhaps the question to ask is 'How are you smart?' It's a question that tries to look at what gifts and talents people can bring to the table. I think, more importantly, we need to see the dignity of each person, irrespective of what they can do."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline Drop the labels, recognise the work. Subscribe