VSA Network Celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Around the world and across the VSA Network, communities will be celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on December 3, 2016, with special events, performances, and exhibitions. The following celebrations, planned by members of the VSA Network, offer a glimpse into the diversity and breadth of programming throughout this community.

  • A drawing of a person covering the right half of their face with their hand.

    Featured artwork from VSA Egypt’s upcoming exhibition

    VSA Egypt is organizing a visual arts exhibition featuring the work of six artists with disabilities from all over Egypt. Featured artists include Zaynab Abd Alrahem, Rahma Kaled, Ahmed Nagi, Yahya Adel, Karim Alnagar, and Vivyan Anton. The exhibition will be held in the art gallery of the Cairo Opera House.

  • Kulttuuria kaikille (Culture for All) of Finland is participating in DiDa 2016 – Disability Day Art & Action in Helsinki on IDPD. DiDa offers a wide array of arts and events, including theater, dance, circus, poetry, and creative workshops.
  • VSA Philippines will celebrate with an exhibit bazaar sale at the Asian Development Bank in Pasig City. Items featured in the exhibit include Saori weaving (created through a community-based rehabilitation program), paper folding, rugs, bags, and cards.
  • The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh will host their “Come Say Hi!” program, where children can explore the world of calligraphy and experiment with creating their own lettering style. Attendees will also learn to say “Hi! My name is…” in American Sign Language and Braille to celebrate IDPD.
  • Dancing Wheels Company & School of Ohio will offer a public performance of The Snowman on December 3. Local children of all abilities and ages will participate in the Kids Around the World section of the show onstage with the Dancing Wheels Company
  • VSA Wisconsin is participating in an event hosted by insurance company WPS Health Solutions. They will have a public awareness table with information on their programs and merchandise to sell. VSA Wisconsin President Kathie Wagner says this is the second year they have participated, and they find it to be a good opportunity to get the word out; last year, they gained a volunteer from the event!
  • New Jersey’s Roxey Ballet is offering a sensory-friendly performance of the holiday classic Nutcracker on December 3, 2016. This performance is especially designed for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other sensitivities or special needs. Audience members can find a pre-visit social story and performance picture schedule on the Roxey Ballet website.
  • The River Performing and Visual Arts Center in Houston, Texas, is hosting their fall 2016 recital, Global Bazaar, on December 3. Students with disabilities and their siblings ages 4-19 will sing, dance, and act in musical numbers. The recital is free and open to the public.
  • At the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, the Art Connections educational space will feature an annual Women of Vision show, produced by the museum’s class of women who are blind or have low vision. Art Connections will also have paintings by students at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind on display on December 3.
  • Two women sitting on a stage use ASL to communicate.

    Workshop leaders Kim Weild and Alexandria Wailes of IRT

    IRT of New York City is offering Space, Time, and the Body, a free introductory Viewpoints-based workshop for deaf and hearing artists presented by Kim Weild and Alexandria Wailes, on December 2.

  • First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will deliver a special curtain speech during performances of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on December 3, making sure audiences are aware of the day and the many ways First Stage is inclusive to all people.
  • VSA Massachusetts is participating in a December 3 event in the Atrium of Boston’s Prudential Center. Artist Jon Sarkin will display his work and give a spoken work performance about living with an acquired brain injury.

Belfast’s Replay Theatre Company Makes a Splash with Students with Disabilities

A female actor in a blue costume holds a boy audience member in a pool.At Replay Theatre Company in Belfast, Northern Ireland, part of the organization’s mission is to provide meaningful arts experiences to children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties and those who live and work with them. Their current production for students with disabilities is Into the Blue, a show in a pool featuring actors who sing an original score.

We had a chance to speak with Janice Kernoghan, Replay’s artistic director, and Anna Newell, director of Into the Blue and former artistic director at Replay, about the show and the company’s other work with students for disabilities.


VSA: Tell us about what happens at a performance of Into the Blue.

Janice Kernoghan: Three pupils attend each show, each with an adult companion (who could be a teacher, teaching assistant, parent, etc.). We tour the show to special school hydropools across Northern Ireland, so our audiences are pupils from each school we visit. This increases accessibility as it means no travel for children for whom travel can be disruptive and/or difficult. Into the Blue is currently on its second tour, and on both tours we have also performed it in the hydropool of the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.

We send schools a social story for the show in advance so that students can get an idea of exactly what happens at a performance. Three performers sing the entire 20-minute show in three-part harmony. The performances always have a ratio of one actor to one child. This means that the actors can be completely attuned to the reactions and preferences of the child they are working with.  This intensive interaction is central to all of Replay’s work with children with disabilities.  Each different song in Into the Blue represents a different feeling of being in water—gentle waves, bubbling whirlpool, open seas.  To accompany these changes in mood there are different props used, including colanders and reflective mirrored globes. You’ll find video footage of the show on our website.


Three actors in blue costumes perform for three children and their caregivers in a pool.VSA: What was the inspiration for creating the piece?

Anna Newell: I’d always had the plan to make a show in a pool for children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties, inspired by our contact with [UK children’s theater company] Oily Cart who had made a very different piece in the same unusual environment. Much of my work for both the very young and children with disabilities involves substantial use of harmony singing. There is something ultimately, beautifully, and viscerally connective about human voices singing in harmony. And the pool is one of the few environments where children and young people who are anxious find calm […and] have a (literally) more fluid kinaesthetic experience. So it made sense to me to put these two things together.


VSA: What was the development process like?

Anna Newell: Practically, we would spend the mornings learning the sung score and the afternoons taking the singing into the pool with audience members. This show is incredibly responsive to each audience member and is a totally different bespoke experience each time, with the performers nuancing the show in tacit dialogue with the audience both as individuals and as a group.  And whilst there are initial conversational openers—gentle droplets of water dripped on hands, floating reflective globes, cascading colanders—during the development process, the children and young people in all their extraordinary diversity are training the performers to be able to create a blissful watery adventure that is developed/devised in the moment substantially led by the audience. Some shows are very, very splashy and energized, others are very, very gentle, some are cheeky and playful, and others are intensely intimate; some are all of these at the same time in different corners of the pool with different audience members.

When I was creating the first ever show I made as Replay’s artistic director for this audience, I had a massive personal revelation about what theatre meant to me. These children and young people revealed to me that what I think theatre is, is very simply one human being communicating with and connecting with another human being. And my job as director is to create the optimum conditions for this communication, for this connection. Into the Blue does this, I think, really uniquely, with its combination of a blissful environment, David Goodall’s exquisite vocal score, and performers who have been trained through the development process (and trained by their audience as much as by myself) to listen intently with all their senses and to find the connection, to find the conversation, and to travel on the adventure together with their audience.


An actor in a blue costume holds a colander draining water up in the air for a child in a pool.VSA: Does Replay have any other productions or programs happening this year for students with disabilities?

Janice Kernoghan: Replay always has a production for young audiences with disabilities in development. Into the Blue is the last project for audiences with disabilities during 2016; however, in February we will be continuing development work on our brand-new show Yes Sir, I Can Boogie. The show is designed for children ages 3-7 with physical disabilities who may not always be able to get on the dance floor. Yes Sir, I Can Boogie is a party of a show where everyone gets to get on down, and is an upbeat celebration around the joy of dance and movement.

Next year we will also be retouring Snoozle & The Lullabugs, a rockabilly-rockabye show for children under age 5 with profound and multiple learning difficulties or severe learning difficulties, which can also be enjoyed by under 5s without disabilities. In the show, Snoozle wants to stay up and rock, but his band, The Lullabugs, just want to go to sleep. Using everything at their disposal, including chilled-out doo-wop harmonies and calming sensory activities, The Lullabugs try every trick in the book…but Snoozle will not be easily swayed. The audience decide for themselves and vote with their eyelids who wins this battle of the band.


For more information about Replay Theatre Company and Into the Blue, visit their website, http://www.replaytheatreco.org/. There is also an article about Into the Blue on the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s website.

October 2016 VSA Webinar: “The Teacher and the Teaching Artist: Collaboration and Community Building in the Classroom”

In “The Teacher and the Teaching Artist: Collaboration and Community Building in the Classroom”, teaching artist Nancy Volante and special education teacher Chad Hamilton discuss how the classroom is a community where learning, communication and socialization take place everyday. Building a strong foundation and relationship between classroom teachers and teaching artists creates an environment where the classroom community can engage in the intellectual and creative process. In this one-hour webinar, we examine and discuss the necessary components of a strong collaborative relationship that sustains learning, communicating and socialization in the classroom—for both students and professionals.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)



Nancy Volante received her Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College in Vermont. She teaches theatre and dance residencies and professional development workshops throughout the country. Nancy’s particular interest is integrating arts education in the classroom. She is co-creator and former lead teaching artist/coach for Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE). Her community based art practice addresses place, identity and memory through movement, text and image.

Chad Hamilton is a Special Education Teacher and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) based in Brooklyn, NY. This is his 11th year teaching within District 75 of the New York City Department of Education. District 75 is an all-borough special education district within New York City, serving students with a range of disabilities. As a classroom teacher, Chad works with students classified with Autism, Intellectual Disability, and/or Emotional Disturbance, in Grades K-5.

Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • Six Characteristics Defined
    • Trust
    • Diversity
    • Mindfulness
    • Interrelatedness
    • Respect
    • Effective Communications
  • How to Build and Sustain the Six Characteristics
    • Professionalism
    • Pedagogy
    • Collaboration
    • Flexibility
    • Creativity
    • Trust
    • Alturism
  • Outcomes when the Six Characteristics are Present

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?

(Re) Invention Exhibition Features 15 Outstanding Young Artists with Disabilities

Since 2002, the Kennedy Center and Volkswagen Group of America have teamed up for the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, to recognize and showcase the work of emerging young artists living with disabilities, ages 16-25, who are currently residing in the United States. (Re)Invention gives fifteen young artists the opportunity to display their work in venues across the nation.

(Re)Invention presents artists whose work exemplifies themes of renewal and self-discovery. From the unexpected whimsy of an animation, to a bold series of self-portraits, this work engages, challenges, and delights us. Collectively, these works of art captivate us on many levels: we are asked to explore ideas of self, community, legacy, and collective memory.

With this traveling exhibition, we aim to give visibility to the work of artists with disabilities throughout the United States, positioning them to broaden our understanding of disability and the arts and to create new contexts.  These fifteen artists give us examples of how art can be used to rewrite a personal narrative.  They are present in their community and in the world, and are motivated to use their creativity to send a strong message of inclusion and unity in the arts.

Monica Chulewicz, Grand Prize
I’m Not Here For You To Taunt, 2016
Cyanotype prints on vintage dress (90 in x 35 in)

Monica Chulewicz is a Polish-American artist who was born and raised in New York. A printmaker and collagist, she uses vintage found materials in both digital and traditional hand-printing processes. Chulewicz was born with a progressive disease that has caused several secondary illnesses, and uses her chronic health issues as a means of inspiration for her work.

The cast of anonymous women depicted in I’m Not Here For You To Taunt represent collected memories from un-known histories, and evoke a continuum of loss and renewal throughout the generations. Chulewicz experiments with fiction of the past, using vintage photographs to create dialogues between memory and time, and address themes of existence, fragility, and mortality.

Chulewicz earned a BFA from Adelphi University in 2013. She currently lives and works in New York.

Victoria Dugger, First Prize
Soft Machine 1, 2015
Encaustic, nylon, brick (12 in x 18 in x 32 in)

Unflinching and direct, Victoria Dugger’s work confronts us with a duality of beauty and the grotesque through sculpture that heavily distorts the human body. Soft Machine 1 is part of a series exploring tropes of disability, sexuality, and fear of the unknown through figurative shapes that are unsettling recognizable, yet still very foreign.

Through this series, Dugger, who uses a wheelchair, aims to reinvent and restructure the body as seen by common societal perceptions and expectations. Her art at once questions the imagery and stereotypes associated with beauty and disability, and pushes us to rethink our own projected narratives of the disadvantaged.

Dugger earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Sculpture from Columbus State University in 2016, and continues to create art from her hometown of Columbus, Georgia.

Kate Pincus-Whitney, Second Prize
Getting Ready, 2015
Acrylic, woodcut, ink and gesso, on canvas (36 in x 48 in)

Born and raised in southern California, Kate Pincus-Whitney celebrates portraiture and the theater of the dinner table in her narrative paintings and multi-media installations. Her art is informed by her experience of navigating the world with dyslexia and stereo-blindness: female forms, table scenes, food, patterns, color, and abstracted and misspelled words are recurring motifs woven into her work. Pincus-Whitney aims to synthesize social and political themes of identity with visual memory and personal histories. She sees herself as an “artist anthropologist,” following and celebrating the thread of women in her family history, depicting female strength, resilience, and creativity.

Pincus-Whitney is a 2016 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she focused on visual and performance art. She is currently working as an artist, and divides her time between New York and California.

Mara Clawson, Award of Excellence
To Survive, 2016
Digital video

The vibrant strokes of color in Mara Clawson’s To Survive waver separately, before coming together to form the whimsical and thoughtful imagery that accompanies her narrative. As the video unfolds, we see that the growth of images mirrors the artist’s own progression toward greater self-sufficiency. Clawson has familial dysautonomia, a neurogenetic disorder that affects her autonomic and sensory nervous systems. Through creating art, she has found a profound sense of self, stating, “Making art makes me who I am.”

Clawson attended the Ivymount School in Potomac, Maryland and the Katherine Thomas School in Rockville, Maryland. She currently produces her artworks at Art Enables in Washington, D.C., and in her home studio.

Courtney Wynn Cooper, Award of Excellence
Slip, 2016
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas (50 in x 36 in)

Born and raised in Mountain View, California, Courtney Cooper’s work is subtly complicated by texture, and typically focuses on one or two central shapes. While the images themselves come across as minimal and uncomplicated, the process of creating them is not. Cooper treats each painting as an equation in need of a solution. As she begins her first sketches, patterns and rules of perspective begin to emerge that she gradually builds upon to create the finished piece. In a response to finding herself anxious and overstimulated, Cooper often imagines stepping into her canvasses, escaping into a somewhat disorienting world of non-conformity. She is interested in the space between what is wrong and right, saying, “You can stay longer with something in a state of perplexity than in a state of total clarity.”

Cooper currently studies Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.

Christine Driscoll, Award of Excellence
Pup Art, 2015
2D animation

Christine Driscoll, who is on the autism spectrum, was born in Yokohama, Japan and grew up in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In 2015 she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation from Savannah College of Art and Design, where she wrote, directed, and animated Pup Art, leading a team of 17 students to create the final product. The short film was inspired by the antics of Driscoll’s own dog, Rocky, and gives a playful look into the creative process. Her style is loose, gestural, and inspired by the work of classic animators such as Glen Keane and Carlos Grangel.

When she is not collaborating on projects as a 2D animator and storyboard artist, Driscoll creates 3D found-object sculptures, and is an active contributor to online art communities. Her goal is to make film adaptations of her written stories using different techniques, including CGI and Stop-Motion, as well as 2D animation.

Nicholas Fagan, Award of Excellence
Same Shame Smell, 2016
House paint, spray paint on canvas (36 in x 24 in)

Nicholas Fagan creates abstract imagery that deals with symbolism, disability, and language. His experience with dyslexia and dysgraphia has led him to devise a unique system for understanding the written word. Fagan ascribes meaning to the shape of the word itself, rather than its individual letters, and has trained himself to recognize these symbols as stand-ins for objects or concepts. He uses this technique in Same Shame Smell, saying, “I lay words on top of each other and allow their shapes, not the actual words, to convey the visual message.”

A native of Herndon, Virginia, Fagan is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University. He lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.


Benjamin Gibbs, Award of Excellence
The Feet 1996, 2016
Inkjet print (14 in x 11 in)

Introspective yet quietly objective, Gibbs’ work places at its center his experience living with cerebral palsy through self-portraiture. The Feet 1996 is one of those rare examples of the genre where the body itself is absent, yet what we see is just as intimate, if not more, than if the artist were depicted. This work is part of a series called Three Point Perspective that explores perceived perspectives on disabilities from the people Gibbs interacts with on a daily basis—strangers, close friends, and family—before ultimately giving us insight into how the artist sees himself. The Feet 1996 is the first in the series, and is meant to convey the isolation Gibbs feels when people define him by the objects he uses in daily life.

Benjamin Gibbs was born and raised in northern Virginia, and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in photography from Longwood University.

Harrison Halker Heinks, Award of Excellence
Vanity, 2016
Inkjet print (24 in x 18 in)

Harrison Halker Heinks uses photography as a means to establish himself in the world. He states, “People have a tendency to ignore me because I have a disability. One way I see myself existing in this world is by capturing my reflection in everyday scenarios.”

Reminiscent of twentieth-century street photographers like Lee Friedlander and Vivian Maier, Heinks inserts himself subtly yet deliberately in his images through shadow and reflection. He explains that this type of self-representation illustrates his life with autism, in that he feels caught in another plane that runs parallel to the world in which everyone else lives. As he looks at the images he creates, Heinks places himself in a new, shared, context beyond the window, saying, “By looking at my work, I am present in their world. Being present is what motivates me to create.”

Heinks attends Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota, and creates his art at Upside Right Studios.

Zàira Lee, Award of Excellence
Still from HOMELAND, 2016
Inkjet print (36 in x 24 in)

A trained pole dancer and poet from Oakland, California, Zàira Lee’s art interweaves ancestral stories of oppression through video and performance art. Her current work explores ideas of ceremony and social justice, and seeks to honor past, present, and future histories of gender and sexual violence through ritual pole dance. The pole is a conduit to these experiences, and acts as a source of empowerment for Lee, who lives with anxiety and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The photograph seen here is a still from HOMELAND, a collaborative video piece in which a blindfolded Lee leaves a violent past and returns to a decolonized home.

Lee graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies and a focus on carceral geographies and human rights. She lives and works in Oakland, California.

Jeremie Austin Miller, Award of Excellence
Primary Bowls, 2016
Ceramic, fiber (approx. 4 in x 4.5 in x 4 in each)

Created using both hand building and wheel throwing techniques, Jeremie Austin Miller’s work often challenges the viewer with provocative statements. For example, his vibrantly colored Japanese-style tea bowls are at odds with the fiber bowls, which are made from over $500 in shredded US currency. Through contrasting the traditional with the unexpected, Miller’s work starts a conversation about usefulness, intent, context, and privilege. The process of creating art allows Miller to better understand himself and others with mental illness, and to communicate to the broader community his often complex and abstract ideas.

Miller studies at the University of Kansas, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in art with a concentration in ceramics.

Abigail Nash, Award of Excellence
Clean Break, 2016
Oil on canvas (44 in x 35 in)

The sensitive and intimate rendering of detail is something Abigal Nash takes very seriously. As an artist with low vision, objects even at a short distance are indistinct and become difficult to translate into paintings. By bringing the animal bone within her range of vision and using a brush the size of the tip of a pen, Nash created the detailed and intimate still life seen here; the colors and textures in Clean Break invoke the many-colored Texas Hill Country landscape from which the bone came.

Nash is passionate about bringing accessibility to the arts. A native of Mason, Texas, she studies both studio art and political science at Southwestern University.

Alexandra Novess, Award of Excellence
Heart Strings, 2015
Acrylic, granite, violin strings on canvas (28 in x 18 in)

Alexandra Novess’ abstract mixed-media paintings are meant to make the viewer feel a subtle intrusion. In Heart Strings, she uses violin strings to illustrate the fluid and unpredictable motion of many mental and neurological conditions; the rough granite pieces are reminders to stay grounded during times of unease.

Novess’ own experience with a sleep disorder surfaces in the sinuous structure of her work. Her paintings, with their organic materials and multiple layers, function as a timeline, and give structure to the places where her memory is affected by sleep deprivation. She believes that the more we acknowledge and try to understand the prevalence of hidden disabilities, the better equipped we are to address something that so deeply affects our modern society.

Novess lives in Austin, Texas, and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in psychology and statistics.

Alice Shockey, Award of Excellence
Spaces in NYC, Crown Heights, Kingston Avenue Station, 2015
Lithographic prints (8.5 in x 12 in each)

Alice Shockey uses photography and multimedia installations to study different iterations of demarcated space, both within communities and within the body. Her work looks at the personal and minute, as well as the interpersonal and broad-reaching. For example,

Shockey uses her art to reclaim her relationship with her body in the context of her experience with chronic Lyme disease, as it displaces her sense of self and normalcy. In other instances, such as in Spaces in NYC, Crown Heights, Kingston Avenue Station, she comments on issues of boundaries, displacement, and community geography. Some of her broadest-reaching work looks at the visible and invisible forces that shape a community as seen through the lens of her family’s history as survivors of the Holocaust.

Shockey is a 2016 graduate from Oberlin College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art. She plans to continue a process of artistic advocacy and self-discovery.

Darryl Terrell, Award of Excellence
I Wish I Was Perfectly Happy, 2015
Inkjet print (triptych, 36 in x 24 in)

I Wish I Was Perfectly Happy is a very personal exploration of body image, black masculinity, queer identity, and disability. Pulling from influences he observed growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Darryl Terrell’s art is a reflection of black family structure and popular culture, asking “What is American blackness? How does it look?” Terrell’s triptych examines the black, femme, and queer bodies as separate categories living within the same identity, and how they occupy space in the American landscape. Terrell’s mission is to educate; he states, “I want my art to build dialogue. I want people to look at [my work] and really think and question.”

Terrell is a Queer African-American artist whose primary practice is photography. Currently based in Chicago, Illinois, he is a pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Five Tips for Teaching Creative Movement and Dance to Students with Disabilities

By Silva Laukkanen

These tips are inspired by my three years of teaching creative movement and dance in a school in Austin, Texas, that serves students who have significant disabilities, including children who are medically fragile or who need intensive behavioral support.

  1. Create a fun routine. It is important for sessions to have a clear beginning and end that stays the same. I begin and end in a circle with a song that includes the same movements every time. I alternate between exercises that are high energy and calming, which gives students and teachers time to refocus. In cases when a class comes in and is very upset or has a high energy level, I start with calming exercises and continue with more rigorous dancing and movement, but always end with calm and quiet.
  1. Engage with visuals. I try to give visual cues for every aspect of the class. I clearly mark where all dancing will happen with two long lines of painter’s tape on either side of the space. It is good for students who are blind or have low vision because they can feel the tape. I also use “spots,” which are colored, rubbery circles. One of the many ways that I use them is to give students their own “lane” when I want to have everyone do locomotive movements in a straight line. This allows me to provide an adequate amount of personal space between the students who need it and to give visual cues for where to stop and begin. The class schedule is also visual. I take pictures of the actual props we will use in the exercises and arrange them in a timeline that students can see at all times. As we complete each section, the visual cue is removed. This lets students see when their favorite part is coming up and also how much is left in the class.
  1. Use a variety of music. There is music that will draw out the creative mover in each one of us and it is good to ask your paraprofessionals about the students’ favorite music genre or artist as it can change the mood of the student and the whole class instantly. It is also good to know if you have students that are sensitive to certain sounds. In my class we explore all different styles, traditions, and tempos of music.
  1. Dance through transitions. In order to keep everyone engaged the entire time, I have created a way to have transitions as their own dance. For example, I play calm music and we do a balancing dance and balance the rubber spots on our bodies as we return them to me, and that balancing dance marks the transition to the next activity.
  1. Honor the students’ movements. Pick up the smallest movements that you see and amplify them; notice even the tics that someone has and use those in your lesson. This will make the students feel valued. If someone walks only on their tiptoes, have everyone do a transition dance between two activities on tiptoe. When you play someone’s favorite song and they can’t help but dance, follow their movements and see their face light up with pride. Become a student yourself and see everything as a possibility. Be open and ask questions from the people who know the students best, and have lots of fun dancing!


A photo of the author, a woman with short red hair wearing a blue and white scarf

Silva Laukkanen

Silva Laukkanen is a teaching artist who focuses on community dance and bringing dance to non-traditional places for everyone to experience. She has been with VSA Texas since 2012.

VSA Florida Explores a New Definition of Dance

The logo for A New Definition of Dance, featuring five small pictures of dancers with disabilitiesFrom October 14-26, 2016, VSA Florida will present “A New Definition of Dance,” a celebration of dance featuring internationally renowned dancers who have disabilities. With nearly two weeks of statewide events, “A New Definition of Dance” strives to break down negative stereotypes of people with disabilities, introduce students and veterans with disabilities to a new method of communication and self-expression, encourage dance majors to explore dance forms through varying types of bodies and abilities, and provide career development and professional opportunities for artists with disabilities.

VSA Florida Executive Director Jennifer Sabo said last year’s “A New Definition of Dance” grew out of a three-part idea their board member and University of South Florida (USF) dance professor, Merry Lynn Morris, had: to provide professional development for dancers with disabilities; to teach USF dance majors about differing bodies types; and to provide a world-class performance of mixed-ability dancers to the Tampa Bay community.  “It went so great,” says Sabo, “We decided to do a second year, this time expanding to three cities in two weeks and adding more artists from more countries.”

Sabo expects about 3,800 people to participate over the celebration, from school workshops to major performances, to a day-long conference on Saturday, October 22, entitled “Integrated Dance: Creating our Future, Merging our Strengths.” The conference is devoted to integrated/inclusive dance for educators, dancers, choreographers, teaching artists, policy makers, and advocates. Participation stipends are available; interested parties can apply online.

When asked what she is looking forward to the most, Sabo cites a hip-hop workshop she participated in last year with about 20 high school students with disabilities and Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli. “Hopefully I get to participate in another school workshop!” she says, continuing, “I also thought the evening performance was one of the most incredible dance shows I’ve ever seen. Luca surprised us all by working with three young students in wheelchairs and having them join him on stage for a finale performance. It was amazing!”

5 Tips for Teaching Theater to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Acting from the Outside In

By James Lekatz

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) present challenges for a typical theater classroom: possible deficits in communication, sensory processing, social skills, and fine motor control. However, students with ASD can also have wonderful strengths for a theater classroom: honesty, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Approaching a theater class from a physical theater pedagogy allows students with ASD to focus on their strengths, build confidence, and develop social skills. Here are 5 tips to start acting from the outside in.

  1. Adopt routine and structure. Begin classes with the same routine: conduct a verbal check-in with each student so everyone has a chance to share what’s going on in their lives; follow with a centering warm-up exercise (introduce a set of skills that students can improve on over time); then a student-led warm-up exercise (this improvisational process incorporates a repeated structure and lets students take ownership of their class); and finish by going over the schedule of the day. Always end class with the same structure: review what was completed and go over what will be accomplished in the next class. Routines and structures help foster a safe and welcoming atmosphere for the students.
  1. Create an atmosphere of playfulness. When playfulness is explored and expressed, the room is allowed to relax. Students are willing to take creative risks and make big choices. Usually, students don’t have a fear of failing or of doing the “wrong thing” when there is an atmosphere of playfulness. Often times, starting an improvisational situation, scene work, or other exercise by doing it the “wrong way” allows all students a chance to fully engage in what they are doing. Nobody can fail, that is the purpose! From this place of playful “failure,” students are able to fully participate and laugh at themselves and each other in a supportive way. Being playful does not mean being disrespectful, chaotic, or unfocused. Playfulness is structured, focused, and allows space for creative freedom, supported peer interaction, and a desire to try again. It also invites full body movement and a physical response with the voice.
  1. Use body, movement, and gesture. Typical theater is based on psychological realism, or memory recall of emotion—acting from the inside out. This is an absolutely valid way of creating theater; however, if we take a physical route to create theater, using physical representations of characters, spatial relationships, and whole body gestures—acting from the outside in—students are able to dive deeper into their creativity. They no longer rely on representing feelings; they can be active and actually show, not just tell, what they are feeling.
  1. Remain open to possibilities. Give students the choice as to who or what they want to represent on stage. The protection of a character lets students’ self-expression evolve in a way that is not possible if they are acting as themselves. It is the job, and joyful challenge, of the teacher to figure out how to put characters together into a story. When it comes to pre-existing scene work, let the students cast the scene as well. This not only sets in motion an interest in the work they are about to begin, but it gives them an ownership of the process.
  1. Ask, “What did you notice?” Leave time for observations and discussions. This allows the teacher to recap what has been accomplished, but also offers time for the students to synthesize what they have experienced. It gives ample opportunity for students who have minimal language skills to express their observations. Prompting the students with the question, “What did you notice?” takes away the personal opinion of a student’s work; the “I liked it when…” is thrown away. An actual critique occurs as students specifically noticed a particular moment. The follow up questions are, “How did it make you feel?” or “What did it remind you of?” These questions help the students bridge the gap from the classroom to their personal lives.


A picture of the author holding a colorful string instrument behind his head.

James Lekatz

James Lekatz is an Education Associate and Arts Access Specialist at Stages Theatre Company. He continues to be instrumental in leading the charge for Stages Theatre Company’s outreach and access efforts, and brokering new partnerships with community organizations. He is also a resident teaching artist in many Twin Cities school districts and is the lead teacher of CAST (Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre), a program for students ages 7-17 with ASD.  

Announcing the Winners of the 2016 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition

An image with the text, "2016 VSA Playwright Discovery Award Program Showcase, at the Kennedy Center, September 3, 3:00PM, Russian LoungeThe Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program. This annual competition invites middle and high school students to examine the disability experience and express their views through the art of script writing.

The winners are invited to participate in a weekend of pre-professional activities at the Kennedy Center during the annual Page-to-Stage New Play Festival. The young playwrights engage with seasoned professional playwrights, directors, and actors to refine their scripts and further develop their playwriting skills. The winning plays include: Fish Waiting for Trees by Lukia Artemakis; Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower by Ella Brett-Turner; Two Scoops of Ice Cream by Sophia DuRose and Katie O’Malley; Missing Pieces by Emma Filosa; Know Your ABC’s by Elijah Gaines and Jaleel Lindsey; Supernova by Andrew Projansky; and Time Stops by Brad Weatherford.

Lukia Artemakis (Fish Waiting for Trees) is a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. She has always loved all aspects of the stage, starting with ballet classes at the age of two. Since then, she has danced in over 100 performances of Ballet Chicago’s The Nutcracker and she has choreographed two pieces for Guys and Dolls Dance Company. Lukia, who has a hearing loss, is an avid writer who is on the youth advisory board of Dave Eggers’ nonprofit writing and tutoring center, 826CHI. She is glad to finally combine her two passions for literary and theatrical arts, and eagerly looks forward to authoring more plays.

Ella Brett-Turner (Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower) is a high school senior living in Providence, Rhode Island. She began writing plays when her brother told her to stop yelling about bad scripts while watching movies. Her interest in history and public health inspired her to write about Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire, who made her fortune selling medicated hair products at the turn of the century. This is the second play Ella has written about Madam C.J. Walker and she has begun work on a screenplay.

Sophia DuRose (Two Scoops of Ice Cream) is a seventeen year old author from Orlando, Florida. With a steadfast determination to pursue her love for writing, Sophia has attended numerous summer programs in order to improve her skills, including an intensive workshop at Columbia University in New York. She has been selected for various publications across many different genres of writing and is well on her way towards her main ambition of being the best artist she can be.

Emma Filosa (Missing Pieces) is eighteen years old and attends The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York where she studies Music Industry. Missing Pieces was selected as a winning script at Hartford Stage’s Write On program, in Connecticut, where she studied playwriting and further developed the piece. She co-directed and produced Unified Theatre at her high school for four years and is an advocate for individuals with disabilities. Emma has performed in multiple musicals around Connecticut and plans to pursue musical theater as a career.

Elijah Gaines (Know Your ABC’s) is a sixteen year old high school student from Lindenwold, New Jersey. He enjoys spending time with his mother and two younger siblings, as well as reading books, playing sports, riding his dirt bike, and helping those in need. Elijah hopes to become and engineer and a writer and looks forward to the opportunity to learn new and exciting things by completing his education and exploring the country. His dream is to one day help his mother live out her dream of opening her own business in their community.

Jaleel Lindsey (Know Your ABC’s) is eighteen years old from Newark, New Jersey. He enjoys playing football and writing verses for rap, which has been incorporated into Know Your ABC’s. With an eye on choosing a path to success in life, Jaleel is enrolled in Youth Build Academy pursuing academics and career development training. He looks forward to what his future holds.

Katie O’Malley (Two Scoops of Ice Cream) is a senior creative writing major at the Osceola County School for the Arts in Florida. Her favorite pieces to write are ones which she can infuse with experiences from her many travels abroad. Aside from plays, she enjoys writing short stories, poems, and memoirs. Katie has had multiple pieces of writing published in the past and was even awarded a Gold Key for her short story by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Andrew Projansky (Supernova) is a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Since 2007, Andrew has been involved in theater by appearing onstage at his local community theater, and only recently developed his love for playwriting after writing about his experience with depression through Supernova. Andrew is a member of the National Honors Society, International Thespians Society, Tri-M Musical Honors Society, is a freshman mentor, and is part of two acapella groups, and much more at his school. Andrew hopes to continue playwriting into college, as well as become a biomedical engineer.

Brad Weatherford (Time Stops) is a senior student at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. Time Stops is based on his personal experiences as an actor with a speech impediment. The script started out as a monologue, and then was lengthened into a one-act play and edited to create a female version inspired by two talented twin actresses at his school. Brad is a proud member of the National Honor Society, International Thespian Society, and Young Men’s Service League. He hopes to pursue a BFA in Musical Theatre in college.

Excerpts from the winning scripts will be performed on Saturday, September 3, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Russian Lounge.

Five Tips for Supporting Teaching Artist Inclusive Practice

By Nicole Agois Hurel, Ed.M.

Teaching Artists (TAs) bring incredibly rich resources and opportunities to inclusive learning settings. However, they often receive less formal instruction and supports than other educators to meet the wide-ranging needs of their students. VSA Massachusetts’ COOL Schools Program piloted an Inclusion Support Initiative this year, which involved the development of the MICC Check for Inclusion, a self-assessment and coaching support tool to improve inclusive practice. The tool provides a set of best practices under four categories: Materials and space, Instructional techniques, Collaboration and Classroom management. It allows TAs to assess their practice in each area and provides a framework for targeted coaching support. Based on the process we followed, here are five tips to support TAs to improve their inclusive practice:

  1. Create a system of training and support. Developing a system (group meetings, one-on-one meetings, feedback mechanisms) that is consistent and predictable allows for meaningful discussion and sustainable growth. Consider your staff and TA capacity when designing it. The system will allow for reliability and focus, and will help you get a clearer idea of common growth areas and how you can best support them.
  1. Describe and model best practices upfront. Setting expectations of what quality inclusive teaching and learning looks like upfront allows TAs to visualize those practices in their teaching and consider them in their planning. Getting input from TAs during the process of naming and defining these practices is essential to keep them relevant and useful in their teaching. Make sure these practices are articulated in a space TAs can access on a regular basis, such as a tool, website, or handout.
  1. Employ TA-relevant language. Avoid academic jargon and practices that are not relevant to the contexts in which your TAs work. Keep the language concrete and understandable. Again, include TAs in the process of articulating the language to avoid confusion and frustration later on. If you plan to use a framework such as Universal Design for Learning or Differentiated Instruction to guide the language, be sure to spend enough time unpacking it together and checking for understanding.
  1. Allow space for self-assessment. The MICC Check asks TAs to reflect on their strengths and growth areas and to identify the supports they would like to receive. This allows for coaching that is targeted and relevant. Make sure you are providing a mechanism not only for the self-assessment to happen, but also for meaningful conversation around it.
  1. Provide in-person coaching supports and articulate action steps. Be sure your system involves coaching supports that are grounded in real work. Visit your TAs in the classroom often and let their self-assessment on best practices guide the conversation. Focus the tone of the discussion on growth rather than evaluation. Furthermore, work together to articulate action steps for the TA to focus on and follow up on how they are being incorporated.


“Creating inclusive environments is an ongoing process of principled design and action, problem-solving and responsive teaching”

~ Glass, Blair, and Ganley.


A picture of a woman with brown hair.

Nicole Agois Hurel

Nicole Agois Hurel, Ed.M. is the Director of COOL Schools at VSA Massachusetts, where teaching artists and classroom teachers collaboratively design inclusive, arts-integrated learning experiences for students with and without disabilities.

Helping Teaching Artists Navigate Special Education Classrooms

A female teacher talking to a young boy in a classroom.

Katie Kirkman works with a student.

With their years of experience as special educators, Katie Kirkman and Andy Dakopolos know the structure and language of special education classrooms can be intimidating and confusing. Teaching artists, in particular, may struggle to uphold the creative integrity of their work while operating inside of a seemingly rigid special education framework. Kirkman and Dakopolos, both doctoral students at Teachers College of Columbia University, believe that with the right tools, teaching artists can creatively and confidently navigate special education settings.

Kirkman acknowledges that special education is full of jargon that may be unfamiliar to teaching artists. But both she and Dakopolos emphasize the importance of creativity in the classroom, and finding ways to be a creative person within the constraints of special education. At the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, they presented a session offering teaching artists “pro tips” on creating helpful classroom structures, aligning lessons with Common Core State Standards and Individual Education Program (IEP) goals, and working with student behavior plans.

When it comes to classroom structure, Kirkman encourages teaching artists to incorporate visual cues and create routine so students can physically and visually construct their day. “Creating a visual flow for everything that happens helps kids understand their ultimate goal,” says Kirkman. She also emphasizes the importance of creating visual cues and directions in multiple modalities, taking into account the different ways learners might process information.

Dakopolos encourages arts educators to think critically about their objectives in whatever lesson they are teaching and focus on how they can adapt their instruction to meet the needs of diverse populations. There are many creative ways to make accommodations for students and modifications to the instruction that speak to general education standards and IEP goals. For example, Dakopolos says, children can be offered more time to complete assignments or can complete them in a different modality. “I think it helps educators to understand that they really do have a lot of freedom in both how they present information and in what their students create,” says Dakopolos.

According to Kirkman, behavior plans are where teaching artists can encounter a lot of unfamiliar jargon and acronyms, such as ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). There are generally three levels of behavior intervention: school, classroom, and individual. Kirkman encourages teaching artists to seek information about the school and classroom behavior plans that are already in place, and buy into them from day one. She states, “When you start speaking the same language as everybody else in the school, you’ll get respect quickly.”

Individual behavior interventions typically exist to deal with problem behavior, and Kirkman recommends thinking about the purpose and function of the behavior, or why the child is doing it. Try directing the student to a positive reinforcement instead of punishing negative behaviors. If teaching artists are creating rules within a lesson, Kirkman suggests framing things in a positive way; for example, instead of simply saying don’t do this or that, teach students the right thing by saying we do do this or that. “Look at each kid and realize what motivates them,” says Kirkman, “then see if you can offer reinforcing, positive interactions or other social motivations to avoid the problem behavior.”

More than anything, Kirkman and Dakopolos emphasize the importance of communication and collaboration when working in special education settings. “When you work with a kid with an IEP, you are suddenly part of that child’s education team,” says Dakopolos, “and it’s important to be a team player. Being fluent in the language of the special education program and being willing to adapt and embrace that child’s system will benefit the student and make everyone’s job easier.”