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Self-expression is a vital part of our experience as humans. But for people with physical disabilities, participation in arts programs can be a challenge in and of itself. Today, adaptive arts and art therapy put creativity in the spotlight.
Arts as an expression of healing and hope
If all the world’s a stage, and we are merely players, then it makes sense that all of us should be able to take the stage at some point in our lives.
For people with disabilities, participating in creative arts programs has not always been possible. Even today in more enlightened times, we don’t see the level of participation, or inclusion, in arts programs among young people with disabilities as we see in able-bodied children and teens. Slowly but surely, theater programs, visual arts classes, and dance troupes designed specifically for people with disabilities are providing an outlet for inventiveness and creativity.
Access to art, theater and drama programs can take several forms. Sometimes, classes and programs that focus on a creative pursuit are available through nonprofit organizations, or schools. Other times, arts are used as a therapeutic measure in a professional setting as a means to connect young people with disabilities to their bodies, emotions and self-esteem.
The benefits of art
Disability can affect how a child sees their abilities. As a result, they may limit their creative expression. But participation in the visual and performing arts is an avocation that can have a positive impact of children with disabilities in a number of significant ways.
Because arts fit into either a solitary or groups setting, students have an abundance of choices in terms of where and how they practice their creativity. Also, there are several physical modifications that can be made to equipment a child uses, such as attaching a paint brush to a pointer positioned in a head brace, or “head stick,” that can then be put to canvas so a child can make their vision a reality.
Art provides a child, even a non-verbal child, the ability to express their emotions, creatively. Art can provide an outlet for a range of emotions from anger and aggression to joy and beauty.
Another benefit is that the arts encourage socialization, which can be difficult to achieve for young people with a disability. The arts can be made inclusionary to give children the ability to be creative in an environment with other children with disabilities or with able-bodied children. The appreciation for the process of creating art, as well as the appreciation for the result, provides shared experiences.
In most organized programs, instructors and mentors are hands-on to provide students with technical assistance without interfering in a student’s unique vision or point of view. Just the manner an instructor incorporates a child with a disability can make their inclusion a naturally accepted act that, in itself, teaches able-bodied students about acceptance.
An unexpected benefit that can occur is the further development of language skills, which some studies indicate improves when children have access to drama programs. Because of this, students are replacing what is for some a challenge of vocalization with an opportunity to hone their skills.
But the biggest case that can be made in favor of arts programs for people with disabilities is the increase in self-esteem and self-worth that comes when a person creates something new, or something beautiful, that connects with others. Arts give people with disabilities a chance to share their voice, their vision, and their skill through expression on the stage or on the canvas. This is noteworthy because too often, people with physical or cognitive challenges don’t have a clear voice or a platform on which to share. They also have control over creation and a form of expression.
The boost in self-esteem is likely to create a situation where a participant receives positive feedback for their efforts, which is always a plus.
Additionally, people with disabilities have an opportunity to re-envision their abilities and talents simply by using the creative process, and express their innermost thoughts and feelings about anything that is impacting their lives.
Artistic talents – whether they are displayed on the stage or in the art studio – can allow a young person with disabilities to excel beyond their able-bodied counterparts if the natural talent is there. Arts can be an avenue that people with disabilities can travel to take part in a vibrant, innovative community. For some, art will remain a beloved hobby, for others it develops into a lucrative career.
Arts programs for the disabled serve as a physical and figurative bridge that can connect and foster a participant’s ties to their family, to friends, and the community as a whole. Sometimes, it can tackle feelings and issues in a way that promotes understanding and goodwill.
Art as therapy
A concept that has become more popular during the past 20 years, art therapy takes place when a person with disabilities is provided with arts instruction in a therapeutic setting.
Psychologists and mental health professionals recognized that taking part in arts program – most commonly visual arts programs but also theater and music – has a healing effect on people facing challenges. By using creativity, people use their artistic abilities to resolve inner-conflicts and communicate with others. Sessions are administered by trained and credentialed professionals; young people and can take part in activities individually or in a group.
The unique approach to therapy can take place community programs, medical settings, and one-on-one therapeutic sessions. Art therapy has been successfully used to assist both children and adults to use image creation or performance to express thoughts and feelings if they cannot use words, or if they cannot find the words, to tell others how they feel and share ideas.
Drama programs offer children with one of the most public, and exciting, ways to express themselves.
Operated in numerous communities throughout the United States and beyond, theater and drama programs can take many forms – from organized troupes featuring actors and actresses with disabilities to one-man or one-woman shows. The genres explored by these daring and talented performers range from the Shakespeare to contemporary to comedy.
The stage, for many people with or without disabilities, can be a terrifying place. Performing means putting oneself on display to be judged by those who come to see a show; for some young people, it’s just not going to be something they are interested in.
Others, however, relish the spotlight. And the same reasons performing may be feared by some is what makes it cathartic for others.
In many cases, people with disabilities are used to being conspicuous. But on the stage, they are in the spotlight – as themselves and their character – as empowered performers. For many young people, it’s likely to be the first time they feel in control and admired for their talent.
Theater programs for disabled actors provide an array of opportunities to show off their talent; many times, modifications are made to shows that make the performance accessible to actors with disabilities. In some cases, original shows might be conceived to talk about disabilities, or a troupe of actors with physical challenges might take on an existing show – with a cast comprised of performers that have disabilities. Pushing physical limitations, when physically impaired, can be a goal in and of themselves.
The possibilities are endless, and the opportunity to perform on the stage, or even in film, is one that can be a learning experience not only for the performers, but for the audience, as well.
Dance is something that many people with disabilities can’t conceive of ever doing, let alone publicly. Yet, there have been several notable examples of how people overcome their disabilities to dance, or how dance can be modified and reconceived to suit a young dancer’s abilities.
From the typical toddler tutu classes to Busby Berkley-style kaleidoscope performances, dance has been converted and reconceived to ensure creative movement is a possibility for young people with disabilities.
Students in wheelchairs are sometimes being pushed by a helper while they make their moves, other times, choreographers create moves that maximize a dancer’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Because dance is fluid, all aspects of a performance can be organized to ensure that it is entertaining. This is a significant benefit for performers who may be self-conscious.
Every genre has been tackled by performers with disabilities, from ballet to tap to modern dance. Some performers have found that their bodies are so suited to dance that they have been able to tour with professional troupes.
There is a physical and psychological benefit for dancers with disabilities. The physical act of dance gives people an opportunity to build strength and develop flexibility and range of motion. The psychological benefit of dance occurs when a dancer realizes that he or she is expressing his or herself in a broad, open-hearted fashion. For many dancers, that’s good for the soul.
The visual arts, which include painting, drawing, sculpture and photography and a host of other modes of creativity, are likely to be the most common of all arts programs designed for people with disabilities.
The great thing about the visual arts is that it’s easily modified; in fact, parents can likely make some modifications to a child’s pointer, pencils and brushes and send them to conventional classes where they can learn more about concepts like space, composition, color and texture.
From a practical standpoint, visual arts can be a difficult avocation for people who might be coping with challenges to their fine motor skills. There are a couple of items to consider: children take part in occupational therapy to help them learn how to tackle intricate tasks they must perform in everyday life. Why not work to complement therapy goals in a way that is fun and fulfilling to a child?
Tools used in an arts studio that is serving people with disabilities will likely need some modifications. The most common are handles and grips on paint brushes, pencils and pens; easels that can be attached to a wheelchair or placed on a table; non-spill containers, and attachments designed for the head in which the artist can manipulate the brush, just as is used on a pointer for the computer.
Photography has also been modified to meet various physical needs. Cameras have been attached to wheelchairs so they can remain stable while a person is shooting a photo. If the photographer cannot use their fingers, cameras have been placed in such a way that a student can use their tongue to release the shutter. The goal is to accommodate a disability with the ability counterpart in an effort to work through the challenge.
It’s vital to remember that the arts are a universal dialog that transcends all matters of culture and politics. It is an individual expression, usually without a right or wrong. In arts you don’t succeed or fail, you participate. When art is shared, it’s not just for the artist. It’s for all of us to learn and appreciate.
To learn more about artist’s with Cerebral Palsy, Inspirational Artists with Cerebral Palsy
For research on the arts and disability, VSA – Research on the Benefits of The Arts to People with Special Needs
For national art associations:
Hobbies, Activities and Interests
When a child with a disability reaches adulthood, feelings about acceptance by others may linger. If young people learn to accept themselves during their formative years, explore interests, form friendships, accomplish, interact, and socialize at age-appropriate stages, it can help empower a sense of belonging when they’ve grown.