Many members of the VSA network engage students with developmental disabilities in their arts education programs. At VSA-Saudi Arabia and VSA arts de Perú, serving the developmental disability community is a major focus of their work. We spoke with Liliana Mayo, executive director of VSA arts de Perú —Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru (CASP), and Maha Juffali, executive director of VSA arts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — Help Center (VSAKSA), about what they are currently doing with students with developmental disabilities and what recommendations they would make to arts educators looking to expand their programming for this population.
VSA: Tell us what you are currently doing with students with disabilities at your organization.
Maha Juffali: We believe that Participating in a wide range of art activities improves the children’s attention span and concentration, helps them to learn make choices and decisions, and enables them to understand the visual information they receive from the world around them. Thus, VSAKSA arranges for various activities and projects to be executed with children and adults. Our projects are designed for persons with developmental disabilities and all other disabilities, including an Early Intervention program for birth to three years and hospitalized children.
VSAKSA programs include, but are not limited to: Arab Art Link, a visual arts exchange and exhibition program organized by VSAKSA for VSA affiliates in the Arab region; our December 3rd Festival in honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which includes our annual “Color Your Pavement” project along with performances and art activities; the Art on the Beach Project, which gives children with disabilities the chance to show and release their creative artistic expression; and various other writing and drama projects.
Liliana Mayo: At CASP, we are presenting small theater plays featuring students with developmental disabilities, with the participation of their parents when possible. The parental involvement has been very important to our program’s success because it changes the perceptions of many parents who previously thought their students with severe developmental disabilities could not participate in the arts.
Our other main program for students with developmental disabilities is in painting. There are two important painting contests for persons with different abilities in Perú and more artwork by students with developmental disabilities is being shown on national television. The television appearances showcase what students with disabilities can achieve, and each year more and more students are participating. This is creating a lot of awareness of their talent.
VSA: When working with students with developmental disabilities, what kinds of preparations and accommodations do you make?
MJ: When working on a specific project, we consider the curriculum that has been taught and we work in conjunction with teachers or art therapists to accommodate the socio-cultural aspect. We also make sure appropriate tools are provided for
each person according to their disability. We work in individual or group settings, depending on the student’s needs, and we are always on the lookout for emerging new talent. That’s true for all forms of art. We strive to give equal and ample opportunities for all persons with disabilities to flourish and be proud of their artworks.
LM: We make many accommodations as necessary. For example, so our students could participate in theater or musical events, we made ramps in the auditorium so the stage is accessible to everyone.
VSA: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start an arts program for students with developmental disabilities?
MJ: We believe in the strong role of art and that art, in all its forms, is one of the pillars in fostering learning, independence, creativity, and healthy imagination. Our advice is:
- Know your students with developmental disabilities and assess their talents.
- Always introduce students to the project and tools being used, and tell them what the final outlook will be.
- Always be prepared with alternative projects in case the one you have planned doesn’t work.
- Use varied materials in order to stimulate sensory receptors.
- Make sure you praise the students and admire their work by hanging it on the walls, or use multimedia to show off the art pieces.
- If possible, send home the project itself, or a picture or note about what the students have done, so that parents can have discussion with them.
LM: Be a detective of the artistic abilities of your students, believe in them, and have great expectations. Our team at the Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru is always amazed at what our students are capable of and how they enjoy art as much as we do.