Painter with Bipolar II Disorder Advocates through Art

Painting Stories, Painting Lives

Mr Iskandar Shah Ismail is Disabled People’s Association’s (DPA) Inclusion Ambassador. He uses different skills and platforms to advocate with and for persons with disabilities. A training officer for people with various disabilities seven years ago, he remained undiagnosed of his own special needs until later. After having been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, he is now acutely aware of his own thought processes and uses his unique life experiences to empower others with special needs through painting and other social services.


Mr Iskandar taking a photograph with President Halimah Yacob at YMCA Proms 2019, where his paintings were being exhibited and sold.

Learning, to Teach Others

“Teacher! I remember you!” exclaimed a participant of the YMCA Proms 2019, who proceeded to take a photograph with Mr Iskandar before continuing on to enjoy the rest of the carnival’s activities.

“For some persons with autism or intellectual disabilities, they will not approach you unless they are very comfortable with you,” Mr Iskandar explains. “The fact that they still remember my name and are excited to see me makes me feel so warm and happy”.

For Mr Iskandar, being a training officer in an Adult Training & Development Centre for people with various special needs, including ADHD, autism and intellectual disabilities, was challenging. His clients could be violent or behave unpredictably, and he often left work with scratches or injuries. Despite the difficulties he faced teaching art to “clients who could not sit still”, or who showed no interest in communicating with him, he persisted with “passion from the heart” and formed many meaningful relationships with both his clients and their parents.

His job as a training officer was what introduced Mr Iskandar to painting. Wanting to teach art to his clients, he self-studied it, watched YouTube tutorials and spent many hours practising. Now, his paintings are an extension of his advocacy, through which he hopes to emphasise “ability over disability” and enable people with special needs to live more fulfilling lives by empowering them.

Taking Care of the Self, to Help Others


Mr Iskandar sharing the story behind his paintings with President Halimah Yacob.

When he was younger, Mr Iskandar noticed that he had different emotional responses to situations when compared to his peers. To him, it seemed that people were more sensitive to certain happenings which he felt numb towards, but he was deemed too sensitive when it came to other issues.

“I did not conform to what was considered ‘mainstream’ standards of emotional responses,” he said. “I did not cry during my mother’s funeral, nor did I feel very happy when I had the chance to go on a cruise. It can be traumatising for some people when they see that I had different emotional responses from them.”

“Having Bipolar Disorder means that I get very extreme mood-swings. Depending on whether I was in a manic or depressive mood, I was sometimes very volatile and would shout at people. After being diagnosed, I understood my feelings more, and can make cognitive decisions on my emotional expressions. I take medication and take care of myself, because you need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others better,” he said.

Mr Iskandar’s love for painting went beyond it just being a skill he wished to impart to his students. It became an important platform of self-expression and a creative outlet for his emotions where he did not need to worry about conforming to the standards of others.

He said, “Every single one of my paintings have a story, and each one of them have a special emotional connection to me. They are done with a specific state of mind and cannot be recreated. They represent my aspirations, emotions and my life story.”.

Abilities Beyond Disabilities


Mr Iskandar with his paintings at YMCA Proms 2019.

Mr Iskandar uses his unique life experiences to help him understand and navigate interactions with people with special needs. “Not everyone can bond with these special clients. If I can bring happiness to persons with disabilities for just five minutes and make a bond, I am happy,” he said.

“I believe in seeing abilities beyond disabilities. By enabling through empowerment, I believe clients can become service providers, or even job providers. More has to be done to advocate for and change societal perceptions when it comes to people with special needs,” he said.

In addition to being a painter, Mr Iskandar is the founder and Executive director of Hi! Social Services, a local social enterprise that seeks to provide a range of activities and services to people with special needs for a more holistic development. As DPA’s Inclusion Ambassador, he is an active contributor to the society. Together with DPA, he is working to build a fairer society where everyone can participate in all aspects of life.


Contributed by Sim Yu Xiang.