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Founded in 1974, VSA is on a mission to provide programs and activities that are centered on the principles that all individuals with disabilities deserve educational opportunities in the arts, access to cultural facilities and activities, and the ability to develop appropriate skills for careers in the arts. They also prepare art educators and schools to include students with disabilities in art instruction.
VSA’s art programs make arts accessible to all children worldwide
In a facility in Colorado, groups of teenagers are busily preparing their paint brushes to finish a beautiful mural that will be on display for hundreds of people to enjoy.
In a ceramics studio in Vermont, a student sits on a small stool to carefully transform a mound of clay on a throwing wheel into a stately, sturdy earthenware vessel.
And in New Jersey, a troupe of aspiring performers are building their confidence and communication skills in an acting workshop and having a lot of fun along the way.
In nearly every corner of the United States, young people with physical or developmental disabilities are forging new inroads through the practice of creating art – visual arts, performing arts or literary art. Like their able-bodied peers, these young people are learning about the creative process, and how it can help transform their point of view, and in some cases, heal their hearts.
The types of children’s disabilities run the gamut of conditions – vision, auditory, mobility and sensory impairment or loss, for example – but what they all have in common is that they are taking part in VSA, the International Organization on Arts and Disability, affiliate programs.
VSA, previously named Very Special Arts, is part of the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the Washington D.C.-based John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The goal of VSA – which is carried out both at the Kennedy Center and its network of national and international affiliates – is to involve people with special needs in arts and culture through encouraging participation, as well as inclusion.
Founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith, the sister of President John F. Kennedy and the former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Smith believed that every person had a right to engage in artistic pursuits and that all barriers should be removed to help make that goal a reality. Smith had first-hand knowledge of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities; her older sister, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability.
What began in earnest nearly 40 years ago is now a worldwide movement. Currently, VSA has 36 affiliates in the United States, and 52 international affiliates. Worldwide, more than seven million people with special needs take part in VSA programs; the number of affiliates seems to grow as more people realize the power of art.
VSA’s mission is to provide programs and activities that are centered on the principles that all individuals with disabilities deserve educational opportunities in the arts, access to cultural facilities and activities, and the ability to develop appropriate skills for careers in the arts. Likewise, they work to prepare art educators and schools to include students with disabilities in art instruction.
Springboard for the imagination
VSA’s comprehensive programs offer children with disabilities the opportunity to participate in all aspects of the visual and performing arts, including drama, dance/movement, music, painting, drawing, photography, sculpting and writing. Of course, programming will vary from location to location, but all affiliates have developed hands-on, supportive and inclusive classes taught by skilled instructors.
Because people with disabilities have physical limitations, adaptive materials, tools and processes have been developed to make sure every student can partake in meaningful activities and instruction.
Visual art classes are rich and varied in terms of mediums. Students are offered the opportunity to paint on a canvas using oils or acrylic paints. Watercolors come to life when students blend colors on specially-treated paper. Budding photographers are schooled in how to take film and digital shots. And, ceramics and sculpture programs give kids a chance to immerse their hands in forming clay.
Performing arts classes are also highly-involved; students focus on storytelling, communicating, acting, improvisation, and dramatization. Music instruction shows children the finer points of playing individually and as a unit; reading music and understanding the functional aspects of making music is taught.
VSA programs are typically designed for children or adults, but all offerings have a focus on how to enhance a person’s experience when creating art, building communication skills, or developing a healthy sense of self-esteem.
Accessible cultural facilities
Many arts programs that are designed for the disabled individuals focus specifically on creating art. But at the Kennedy Center, VSA has placed a high priority on how people experience the arts.
Theaters, art studios and music rooms are not conceived in an accessible way; many were constructed before architects and builders considered the importance of universal design, and well before the approval of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Steps and doorways are often unnavigable by people who use walkers, canes or wheelchairs, and seating aisles are often not passable because they are two narrow.
Seats often have immovable arms, and are so close together that they can be hard for a person with a disability to get to, let alone sit in for long periods of time.
The VSA strives to create awareness and encourage universal design at buildings that house art or host performances. It’s part of an overall effort to increase engagement in the arts among disabled populations.
The Kennedy Center is home to VSA’s Accessibility Office, which oversees barrier-free architecture programs, exhibit designs, seating, and communications for all performances and programs at the Center. However, the office goes beyond compliance; the Center promotes full accessibility in all physical areas, and provides assistive devices such as listening devices, sign language interpretation, braille and large print programs and publications for events at the Center to make performances and events sensory-friendly.
Today, the Center has courtesy wheelchairs, accessible parking, accessible entrances and exits, specialized seating, accessible restrooms, and accessible telephones. For more details, Accessibility at the Kennedy Center.
The office also advocates for other centers to develop and implement accessibility to their facilities to make the enjoyment of visual and performing arts possible for all people. In 2000, a group of cultural arts administrators that were responsible for accessibility or ADA compliance gathered at the Center and created the LEAD program, which stands for Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability.
LEAD’s role in the VSA is to encourage cultural institutions to implement accessible practices. The international network has expanded its role to share resources among administrators and members and explore methods for implementing accessible environments. The group meets annually to achieve its objectives. For more information, LEAD.
VSA also offers people with disabilities an opportunity to develop careers in the arts. The Experimental Education Initiative Internship gives young people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to work at the Kennedy Center. During the internship, the young people are exposed to all aspects of performing arts, and afforded the opportunity to develop job skills in a creative and supportive environment.
The National Rosemary Kennedy Internship Initiative gives young people with disabilities throughout the United States an opportunity to work in art-related fields through a series of partnerships, and of course, VSA affiliates. The program is named after Rosemary Kennedy, who had an intellectual disability.
The Initiative provides young people ages 15 to 21 who would like to pursue a career in arts an opportunity to meet and learn from career arts administrators at respected organizations. The careers the students typically pursue include arts administration and arts education.
Arts provide not only an avocation for young people the opportunity for fun and recreation, but also a chance to place a spotlight on their abilities instead of their disabilities. In a performance or an art exhibit, it gives young people a chance to share their talents, and take the spotlight.
For more information, Rosemary Kennedy Internship Initiative