A Place at the Table: Who Gets to Speak in Singapore? by Dawn-joy Leong and Cavan Chang


Artwork by Cavan, a commissioned work for Something About Home in 2019. This painting—acrylic on canvas—was part of the artwork used during the finale of the theatre performance. The figure at the centre is Dawn—Cavan places people he likes into his artwork.
This is an edited extract from Not Without Us: Perspectives on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore edited by Kuangsong Victor Zhuang, Meng Ee Wong and Dan Goodley. 
Not Without Us: Perspectives on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore is a groundbreaking collection of essays that takes a creative and critical disability studies approach to centre disability, and rethink the ways in which we research, analyse, think and know about disability in our lives. Across multiple domains and perspectives, the writings in this volume consider what it means to live with disability in a purportedly inclusive and accessible Singapore. 

How do we ensure that those who do not speak verbally still have a place at the table? And what happens when a person’s intrinsic communication style is not word-based but instead sensory in origin and articulation?

Much of what is occurring in Singapore today focuses on the verbose, and we need to pay more attention to the struggles of listening, hearing and speaking with sensory cognition. The senses are essential to elemental functioning and profoundly impact our mental states, whether or not we are consciously aware of the actual processes taking place. It is through our senses that we experience and perceive the world around us, and through our senses that we derive insights into our own existence.

Not all of us like to speak in words, although some of us have learned the technicalities of social language expertly. Nevertheless, we continue to project ourselves within our pedanticism. This is our parlance: it is tangible, direct.

These words in the chapter, even when cleverly employed, are merely painting pictures, creating smells and tastes and composing soundscapes. 

Sometimes we are captivated by complex terminology, but there are no loquacious, convoluted, interactional lines to read between, no subtle sarcasm, no nuanced interpersonal signals, and no tortuously circuitous social-relational calisthenics to perform. Signs and symbols are our linguistic hieroglyphics, and our vocabulary is multi-sensorial: many words embodied within one object, which may be variously seen, touched, tasted, smelled and heard in an instance. Condensed, exploratory, immediate, inundated, luscious, exploding, we can empathise without verbal dialogue through the symbolic, and perceive these through our senses, our bodies.

Neurotypical. Neurodivergent. Autistic. Disabled. Abled. Whatever the terminology or label may be, we believe it is possible for distinct mentalities to co-exist, that we can find a space where we can ‘be’ together. Perhaps, the ‘parallel play’ of very young children and the autistic may be the answer: devoid of verbose social chatter, cognisant of your own senses, as well as mine. We are alongside, but not encroaching, a companionship without coercion, a spontaneous choreography in suspended moments in time and space. We must, however, be ever respectful of the interstices—bodies apart, minds solitary, not fraternising but nevertheless connected and tactile, inside a communal sensory expanse. Your experience, your thoughts, they are yours, and mine belong solely to myself, but we are simultaneously encountering: our senses, our existences and our discernment of the perceptible, pulsating world.

How do we speak our symbols to you, so that you may understand? We can do so with references to your signs and symbols, things that have meaning to you from your world, stories, motifs and icons that we both know. We have diligently studied your metaphors, would you not take time now to learn mine? What your senses perceive may merely be superficial scratches on the surface of our world, but we invite you to intuit our reality, perhaps by magnifying your own. Sense your senses, and in sensing your senses, allow your senses to sense yourself, and the world around you. Become aware of your body, become cognisant of other bodies, from the miniscule to the colossal. Taste, touch, smell, listen and move—conscious of your every vibration, the reverberations and echoes you create. At the same time, your mind questions the consciousness of your senses: where are the convergences, confluences, conflicts and what are the resultants?