Global·FEATURES·Most Successful Women03.06.2024

Ida Lam: Championing Inclusivity in Art

Under Ida Lam's visionary leadership, Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK) has redefined the arts landscape, championing inclusivity and creativity for over three decades. As a recipient of the JESSICA Most Successful Women Award, Ida has dedicated her career to empowering individuals with disabilities, transforming how art is perceived and practiced in Hong Kong. In this exclusive interview, she reflects on her journey, the significant milestones of ADAHK, and her vision for the future of inclusive arts locally and internationally.

What inspired Ida Lam to get associated with the Arts with Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK)?

The first-ever Arts with the Disabled Festival in Hong Kong was a turning point for Ida. It showcased the immense potential of art and highlighted the gap in opportunities for people with disabilities. This eye-opening experience, coupled with the urgent need for better inclusion and public education, spurred the creation of ADAHK to promote inclusion through the arts.

"At that time, I was unaware of arts with the disabled. Looking back at Hong Kong in the 1980s, society mainly provided rehabilitation services to people with disabilities to meet their basic needs, such as medical care, education, life skills, pre-employment training, etc., aiming to enable them to live independently. At that time, art was out of reach in the minds of many people because they could not even afford food and clothing, and there was no spare time to talk about art."

Ida Lam, Chairperson of the Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK).

She furthers, "Not in my backyard was also an issue. A handful of rehabilitation centres provided services to people with disabilities. They had the funding but couldn’t find a place because everyone in different places decided they wouldn't like to have halfway houses. It is against this background that people and service providers consider that we should have some public education that tells people that at different stages of our lives, we may become temporarily disabled."

There was a first-ever Arts with the Disabled Festival in Hong Kong, with conferences, a TVB show, tours, and a touch-art exhibition, amongst many fascinating programs," Ida recalls. "I worked on it as part of my first job with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. I found it very exciting because I had never realized that art could bring so much potential to people. But I was also aware there was a huge gap between people, especially people with disabilities, in Hong Kong regarding involving art in creating or appreciating it," she adds. Reflecting on the festival’s impact, Ida notes, "This successful event led the organizers to establish the organization permanently, transitioning from a one-off event to a continuous effort in promoting arts from a disabled perspective. Our ideas were quite avant-garde for the social environment at the time." She recollects, "There was a wheelchair user who was house-bound. His greatest pleasure was to sit by his balcony and watch the people and the life on the street. ADAHK was sparked off by that simple desire to enable people like him to participate in life and in the life of the arts.

With a legacy spanning more than 30 years, Ida showcases the significant milestones of ADAHK.

Beginning from ground zero, the organization initially relied on international expertise to establish its programs. Today, ADAHK is recognized for pioneering various art forms, such as Saori weaving and playback theater, and creating a multi-layered support system for artists. This system includes broad-based incubation workshops for those interested in exploring the arts, targeted training for individuals aiming for professional development, and advanced support for experienced artists. The organization has also made remarkable progress in public education and inclusion, providing consulting for major cultural projects and promoting accessible art forms.

Ida Lam, Chairperson of the Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK).

"In the beginning, we started with nothing and sought expertise from abroad to train not only individuals with disabilities but also service providers, parents, special school teachers, social workers, and other organizations, including mainstream art organizations," she explains. "We pioneered a few of them, like Saori weaving and playback theater, where somebody tells their story, and the other person immediately acts it out. It is also a theater for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. So, we explore different things, and it has built up various art forms," she adds.

Elaborating on their approach, she says, "There are different strategies. One is horizontal development, which is broad-based, like incubation, and includes many workshops for people with disabilities who want to enjoy the arts. The other is vertical development, which is about professional development and promoting excellence in work. We even established a social enterprise in 2014 to create more job opportunities and income for artists with disabilities.

Incorporating social work and rehabilitation principles into ADAHK's leadership approach.

She treats people with disabilities as equal members of society and emphasizes providing them with the support needed to develop their artistic talents. Her leadership is deeply rooted in the values of public education and advocacy for equal opportunities, underpinned by the belief that small steps can lead to significant changes.

"Working with disadvantaged people is always an uphill battle. You must be patient, and you must accept challenges. And then you must have this persistence that does not give up so easily."

"Of course, rehabilitation from my background helps me a lot in sustaining myself, but also the values of social work, like helping people to help themselves. And we believe that if we empower people, they can become functional and contributing members of society," she explains. She adds, "Sometimes, do not think too little about your effort. A tiny step is a big step for them. For example, for people without disability, seeing a movie is a day-to-day thing. Or training in a workshop. But in a way, training in a workshop is very precious for them. And you are providing an equal opportunity to them."

Key projects have shaped her advocacy for the arts and the disability community.

One such project was the pioneering drama "The Path Together," which combined Theatrical Interpretation (Sign Language with body movements), setting a new standard for accessible performances in Hong Kong. These initiatives fostered collaboration between mainstream and artists with disabilities, enhancing mutual understanding and expanding creative expression. This inclusive approach has not only empowered artists with disabilities but also promoted broader societal acceptance and appreciation of their talents.

Ida Lam, Chairperson of the Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK).

"Several years ago, at least about seven years ago, we staged the first Hong Kong-ever drama, The Path Together, thanks to the generosity of a funding. It's about a one-hour show, but it's the first of its kind in Hong Kong, or maybe in many other places. We combined Theatrical Interpretation with the acting," she explains. She continues, "The Theatrical Interpreter was one of the actors. The audience with hearing impairment could sit there and enjoy the show, unaware they need to see a screen of words. That's the first of its kind in Hong Kong." Reflecting on the collaborative process, she notes, "Gradually, when mainstream artists work together with artists with disabilities, I often find that mainstream artists become more aware of what disability mean. They also feel that collaboration enhances a different dimension of their expression in the arts. So, it's a win-win situation."

Highlighting the collaborative efforts, she adds, "We provide consultancy to West Kowloon, as well as M+ and their park on all the accessibility facilities. So that's how we feel or think about how this community can work together. We all put in our expertise and synergy, and I think the community and society will eventually benefit better than just you doing your part single-handedly."

In what way have advisory panel experiences influenced her understanding of the societal effects of the arts?

These experiences have reinforced her belief in the power of communication and collaboration between mainstream and disability-focused art organizations. She has observed that such collaborations often result in mutual benefits, enhancing both the creative expressions of mainstream artists and the inclusion of artists with disabilities. Moreover, these experiences have underscored the importance of accessible art and the continuous advocacy required to ensure that people with disabilities are recognized as valuable contributors to the arts. "I always believe that more communication would benefit all parties. It always provides me with an opportunity for mainstream art organizations to think about what art is about. It's not only a traditional, conventional way. There could be a lot of creative ways of presenting the arts themselves," she explains.

Addressing obstacles beyond financial support to advance inclusivity and accessibility in the arts.

Beyond funding, ADAHK contends with challenges such as physical accessibility, public awareness, and societal attitudes toward people with disabilities. Practical strategies to overcome these hurdles include public education campaigns, collaborations with mainstream art organizations, and the development of unique art forms that foster inclusion. These efforts are crucial in altering perceptions and creating a more accommodating and inclusive environment for people with disabilities.

"We could do much better and be more sympathetic. It seems very challenging."

Ida Lam, Chairperson of the Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK).

Her strategic vision for the future of ADAHK.

She envisions a cultural hub that showcases inclusion and provides a platform for artists with disabilities to develop their talents and contribute meaningfully to the community. Collaboration with mainstream art organizations and exploring art-tech multimedia approaches are vital strategies for advancing their mission. "We wanted an arts accessibility center where you can house everybody. We would have a black box theater, an exhibition room, and training areas for people with disabilities to develop themselves, involving their caregivers, parents, and schools. Still, at the same time, they are offering themselves to the service community and working with various groups like the elderly, etc.," she explains. She continues, "I genuinely feel that more collaboration would benefit all. Inclusion is not only for us but for all of us as community members. How do we offer ourselves for the benefit of the whole community? That's our dream."

"We would like to explore other art forms like art tech and multimedia approaches. Additionally, we would like to see some of our up-and-coming artists develop into iconic figures.

Written by: Jeremy Chapnick
Photos by: Raymond Chan