From the Archives: Jan 2010

Chuck Close, detail of “Self-Portrait,” 2000 

“The arts invite people to leave familiar territory, to explore new answers and seek new questions. The arts offer a means to self-expression, communication, and independence. By learning through the arts, students become lifelong learners, experiencing the joy of discovery and exploration, and the value of each other’s ideas.” – The Value of the Arts in Education, VSA arts

While it is openly recognized that the arts are undervalued and marginalized in the public school system, there is often little interaction or commiseration between the arts departments and another fringe cluster – the special education department.  “Special needs” and “disability” are impossibly broad terms, and the lack of specific or useful terminology for describing the educational modifications required for these students alludes to their treatment in the classroom.  Students assigned an IEP are thrown together in public schools, regardless of the nature (physical, cognitive, emotional) of their disability or extent of their need for supervision.

The arts classroom is generally seen by the administrative powers-that-be as a vehicle for behavioral modeling rather than an important aid to cognitive and physical development.   With the strain of dealing with more and more children at one time, art educators can often pay only minor attention to individuals but must focus on the group as a whole, leaving little time for modified or individualized assignments.  This set-up prevents children with disabilities from being able to benefit fully from their arts education, leaving an inherent deficit in the education provided by the special education teachers.

The art process encourages flexible thinking and problem solving.  Artistic techniques hone observational skills.  Group- and self-criticism develops critical and analytical thinking skills.  And perhaps most importantly for students with disabilities, multi-sensory instruction helps students learn to translate their experiences into other modes of communication.   The arts are a venue to manipulate and control the world around them.  With concentrated direction towards processing, filtering, and categorizing their world, these students can explore and articulate without the frustrating need to be exact or meet outside expectations.

Now, I am not saying that the arts can only play a therapeutic role (as helpful as that may be) for students with disabilities. Students of all ability levels can be incorporated with relative ease in the classroom with a little pre-planned individualization (see “Helpful Resources” at the bottom of this post) and held to standards of quality.  VSA arts has advocated for 35 years the importance of high quality arts education for persons with disabilities to create work of merit, putting forth the following principles:

  • Every young person with a disability deserves access to high quality arts learning experiences.
  • All artists in schools and art educators should be prepared to include students with disabilities in their instruction.
  • All children, youth, and adults with disabilities should have complete access to cultural facilities and activities.
  • All individuals with disabilities who aspire to careers in the arts should have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills.

Many artists with disabilities (such as Chuck Close and Yinka Shonibare) have become incredibly successful in the art world.  Art education is foundational to the development of a complex and rich appreciation of the world, and our job as artist educators is to insure that all students can create that foundation for themselves and recognize the contributions from artists of all backgrounds.

What are the setbacks to fully incorporating students with disabilities in the arts classroom?  What are the advantages?  How do we make inclusion a priority in our planning, discussion, and instruction?  How do we incorporate dis/ability as a framework for discussing the art of contemporary artists?

Helpful Resources:

VSA arts

“Express Diversity!”

National Institute of Art and Disabilities

Person-first Language

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