Somewhere amongst the rental flats in Lengkok Bahru, little friendly neighbourhood heroes are in the making.
Their superpowers aren’t any of the flashy enhanced powers you’d expect to find in comic books and movies. Rather, it’s the latent ability that we all have – creativity!
Under careful guidance and mentorship, these children wield and hone their superpowers as a form of self-expression, communication, problem-solving and release.
Starting out as a costume crafting project in 2014 with 15 preschoolers from low-income families, Superhero Me has now grown into a non-profit inclusive arts movement that empowers children with special needs and from less privileged communities with creative confidence.
“We use the arts as a means to enable social interaction between typical children and those with special needs, as well as to build creative confidence in children,” says Jean Loo, co-founder of Superhero Me.
When the 2018 Singapore Youth Award winner is not busy with Superhero Me‘s initiatives, Jean Loo manages multidisciplinary projects as the co-lead of Early Childhood Development at Lien Foundation (definitely heroine material)!
Art unites us, across space and time.
Together with Superhero Me’s team of creatives and facilitators, Jean works to make art accessible to children from less privileged and special needs communities, and push its potential to unite people despite their differences.
But inclusive movements have their work cut out for them. Beyond the walls of Superhero Me, the majority of Singaporeans are ambivalent towards arts, and more than that, to children with special needs.
A 2016 survey revealed that only one-third of Singaporeans agree that Singapore is an inclusive society.
The lack of interaction was singled out as an attributing factor to the public’s uncertainty towards children with special needs.
For Jean, this is the very reason for Superhero Me‘s existence. By using art as a great levelling tool, the movement provides a platform for people of differing backgrounds and abilities to experience inclusion in a community setting.
“The approach we adopt – the inclusive arts – is really about how creatives and artists see the children they work with as equals, not beneficiaries,” she shares.
“It’s really fun – for the lack of a better word – and offers an entry point for creatives or people not directly related to those with special needs to learn about inclusion. We have a core community of children whom we develop artistically and creatively, and many times we see ourselves translating their brand/voice of creativity for everyone else to access,” says Jean.
Intrigued by the approach of “seeing the children as equals, not beneficiaries”, we wanted to know more about the empowerment process for the children.
From Jean’s reply, we can tell that instilling sentiments of acceptance and belonging are crucial to the building of children’s confidence. And isn’t it also how the origins of superheroism were formed?
“Being part of this community has definitely helped the kids with us to know that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and they have a ‘family’ of captains and friends from all walks of life that they can turn to.”
Jean adds that as friendships blossom between children of different abilities, “the children slowly become “ability-blind” – because the adults in the team model the idea that everyone here is valued no matter what home you live in, or if you use a wheelchair, or don’t really speak.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Jean strongly believes that inclusion benefits everyone and is pivotal to strengthening our social fabric as a nation.
The key to teaching inclusion is to start young.
“If children grow up in a diverse classroom, they pick up empathy, compassion, skills to communicate and negotiate, and more importantly they learn to accommodate and understand friends from all walks of life and ability,” says Jean.
The power of the Superhero Me’s efforts can’t possibly be overstated.
As evidenced by Superhero Me‘s graduating class of P6 students last year, the movement not only advocates inclusion, it also shapes children – both differently abled and from less privileged families – to become confident individuals who care deeply about the society that they are part of.
One of Jean’s most memorable moments was when kids from the graduating class, or more affectionately known by the team as “pioneer heroes”, put together a capstone project titled “Homerun”. Over the course of nine months, the budding young artists worked with various art forms to express subject matters that were important to them – ideas and realities of success, social class, body confidence, boredom and family upbringing.
Her feelings of admiration and affection are palpable when Jean adds, “From preschoolers who lacked confidence, they, to us, are some of the most brilliant kids. It’s been pretty surreal that they have continued to want to be a part of this, and seeing them mentor and care for younger friends with needs has been extremely encouraging.”
Knowing Singapore isn’t ranked highly on workplace diversity and inclusion among developed countries, we wondered if a similar approach could be used with adults.
Unlike with children, Jean finds working with adults a lot more challenging – largely due to the low incidence of people with disabilities being gainfully employed. As a result, the opportunity to socialise with fellow adults with disabilities is rare.
She further stresses on the importance of teaching inclusion at a young age: “It’s difficult if you have never grown up with friends with disabilities, or if they’re not naturally in your social circle, unless one chooses to do so. That’s why it’s really important to start small and allow children to develop these inclusive attitudes naturally.”
Superhero Me’s focus lies instead on adults who work with children, to actively grow a community of child advocates for inclusion. Their efforts include the training and capability development of educators and artists, to expand their programmes or work to a more diverse group of children.
One of them was an inclusive arts training workshop, “Developing an Inclusive Arts Practice”, which received an overwhelming number of participant applications. A positive sign, no doubt, that many are keen to nurture inclusivity.
The work that inclusive movements like Superhero Me do is nothing short of heroic.
Thanks to their ceaseless efforts, there can be an endgame in the future where all children – regardless of disabilities and background, will grow and work together in a society that accepts, not segregates.
Interested in exploring what Inclusive Arts is about?
If, like us, you love superheroes and making impactful art, be sure to look out for Superhero Me‘s upcoming inclusive arts training series in May!
Held as part of the Singapore Heritage Festival, “The Greatest Supper Party!” is based on a project on food and friendship that’s co-created with the alumni of Kindle Garden, Singapore’s first inclusive preschool.