In the popular imagination, a superhero is someone decked in a cape, has amazing abilities and can save the world in just two hours of screen time.
Now Ms Jean Loo might not have the typical image of a superhero, but her work as an advocate for disability inclusion is nothing short of extraordinary.
The 34-year-old is co-founder of Superhero Me, an inclusive arts movement aimed at empowering children from less privileged and special needs communities. Through inclusive programming, creative advocacy and cross-sector partnerships, the non-profit organisation is a platform where children of different abilities can socialise and thrive.
In 2017, Superhero Me was awarded the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Seed Grant, and receives funding from philanthropic organisation the Lien Foundation as well. Ms Loo has also been co-lead of early childhood development at the Lien Foundation since 2017.
For her contributions, Ms Loo is one of the recipients of this year’s Singapore Youth Award.
The start of a movement
Her passion for community-based work and disability inclusion stems from a background in photojournalism, which she picked up in her third year at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication. It was then, too, that she developed an interest in social advocacy-related work.
After graduating in 2008, she founded Logue, a content studio focusing on multimedia projects with a social mission. Her work at Logue further fuelled her desire to be part of meaningful and engaging community-based endeavours.
And that was how Superhero Me was born.
The movement saw its pilot run as a costume-crafting programme, with 15 preschoolers from less-privileged families, under the Lien Foundation in 2014. This was followed by a 2015 festival at the National Library as part of the SG50 celebrations.
“We worked with hundreds of children daily over two weeks and I realised how absent children with disabilities were in family-friendly places,” says Ms Loo. “We had to specially invite kids from special education schools to attend the event.”
It was then she realised that more needed to be done. She went on the search for partners to create inclusive opportunities for special needs children to interact with others through Superhero Me.
These included Planet of Possibility, an experimental art show done by students from both mainstream preschools and special education schools, and the Wild Child Festival, presented in the form of a dance and art party.
Projects with a heart
Superhero Me’s next big project is a festival in a special education school in March 2019, which will focus on using the arts to bring families of typically-developing children into the school.
Ms Loo also emphasises how long-term commitment has given the movement a life of its own. “We have veered away from holding one-off workshops. We instead identify key partners in special education schools we can work with every year,” she says. “We’ve also trained a community of 60 art facilitators to work with special needs children regularly.”
The scope of Ms Loo’s work has not just been limited to children. From 2013 to 2016, she was a mentor under the NAC’s Noise Apprenticeship Programme.
Providing guidance to young adults interested in social documentary photography, her main goal was to help them realise their responsibility as artists.
“When working on social documentaries, young adults need to understand that photographing someone is a responsibility and not a right,” she says. “One must thoroughly understand the community one is working with and present a strong social voice in their work.”
Ms Loo has also worked extensively with seniors, collaborating with the NAC on programmes for the 2013 and 2015 SilverArts Festival. In 2017, she also produced a toolkit outlining practical ways for eldercare practitioners to empower seniors through the arts.
Despite her many achievements, Ms Loo is not resting on her laurels. Receiving the award has made her even bolder in using the arts to advocate for inclusion, and she will not stop until Singapore becomes a much more inclusive society.
“I have a very bold vision — that all children will eventually experience an inclusive childhood, attending school with friends in wheelchairs or those who behave very differently from them,” she says.
For more information on the Singapore Youth Award, visit sya.sg