An Indelible Legacy – Dr. Sarah Meisch Lionetto

When I met Dr Sarah Meisch some years back, I was attracted to her ideals and the work she was doing at British Council Singapore. I have always been interested in the disability movement she spearheaded since 2016 in Singapore. The projects she introduced then, especially Sync Singapore has benefited me so much that I decided to talk with her and the inspiration all the programmes she implemented via the British Council, including the latest one, “This Is Who I am”. So one Friday afternoon, we did just that in the midst of laughter.

“There is nothing like kindness. It’s the best thing in life because that’s what makes life meaningful”, quipped Sarah. This statement resonates with me till today too. I got to know Sarah in 2016 during the Arts and Disability Forum where I sensed the landscape of the disability sector was going through some kind of transformation. In this article, we learn from Sarah her mission of transforming the disability into the social model progressively through her work in Singapore.

Sarah grew up at the tail end of the apartheid era and the establishment of the new government in South Africa. Her parents were of mix nationalities and religion and she also grew up in the shadow of persecution; her grandfather was sent to a concentration camp. She married an Italian husband and had their son in Singapore. All these cultural cross roads, all this diversity has always fascinated her as to how people distinguish from other “When we are all the same in so many fundamental ways”.

She had been living in Singapore for 16 years where she did her PhD via long distance with a university in Johannesburg and worked briefly with the Italian Culture Institute. The PhD journey was the start of her interest of inclusion and diversity work because her PhD research looked at identity and belonging and multilingualism in cross cultural context. That’s when she first started to think of how important everyone’s sense of belong is and “How we need to be inclusive to make sure everyone feels they belong”. 

When she joined British Council Singapore, she saw how wonderful the development within the British Council globally in the inclusion and the arts spearheaded by its department in the UK in their expertise and experience. It seemed to her that the time was right because both the British Council’s values and aims were in alignment with her personal interest. She researched on the climate of Singapore then and found that in terms of basic accessibility, all the tick boxes were checked but in terms of mindset, the charity/medical model was prevalent. 

However, she noticed an interest and commitment from the government to move towards a more accessible community  as it was the first time in the national day parade where it featured persons with disabilities. She then started  to speak to partners like the National Arts Council (NAC), The Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and the Very Special Arts (now Art:dis) and they were interested in exploring this further, hence, the first Arts and Disability Forum in 2016 which was a public event with sign language interpretation onsite. 

It was groundbreaking in partnership with value partners – NAC and SIF. It really became the flagship platform for thought leadership and inclusion. It had such a significant impact in terms of innovative perspectives and practices from the UK that weren’t present in Singapore. It really opened up peoples’ minds to what was possible in terms of access and inclusion and autistic practice and of course, that was also when the UK speakers started speaking the social model of disability. It was a landmark in terms of introducing those ideas that weren’t in practice then.

Although the Singapore Design Council was doing great work then, the time was right where more access forms were introduced, among them – audio described and captioning performances in which “And Suddenly I Disappear”, a collaboration of disabled artists between Singapore and UK sponsored by the British Council, NAC and SIF jammed open the door. 

The artists with disabilities here have also been taking proactive steps in leadership in the field of the arts having attended the Sync Singapore leadership programme. I then spoke about the fact UK is so far ahead of Singapore to which Sarah did agree fully. She said, “In many ways, yes, in others, no. The trajectory is – honestly, globally, there is still a very long road to travel everywhere. The UK has been doing this for much longer. They have a history of people who have been passionately committed  to advocating for disabled rights. That has made a very big difference”. So globally, there is still a very long road to travel but it’s important to see what has been done. We can see very concrete changes that has happened over the last few years in Singapore. In 2016, people weren’t aware of all these concepts and now, these practices are being embedded into big events at big venues – relax performances at the Esplanade, captioning and audio description. Above all, programmes catering to the disabled must involve persons with disabilities — leading the conversation and leading the work. In other words, they must be work created by disabled people.

As we ended the conversation, this really spoke to me personally, “It’s totally irrelevant whether the artist has a disability, it’s about the artistic excellence. It’s not about the charity show. I think, this was the game changer. It’s about the work”. My wish is that as Singapore continues to strive towards an inclusive society, we can take and further develop what we have achieved thus far and scale to greater heights. The movement Sarah initiated will be here to stay and as we march on towards the Enabling Masterplan 2030, she had left an indelible legacy that we all can improve upon.

Sarah is currently based in the city of Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

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