Bridging the Gap for Youth with Disabilities in the Arts

As students with disabilities begin their transition out of high school, many are not certain where to find continuing experiences in the arts. Two VSA affiliates address this difficult transitional period with outstanding programs for young adults with disabilities: VSA Vermont’s Mentoring Program and VSA Texas’ Side by Side Internships.

A Side by Side student works on a video camera.

A Side by Side student works on a video camera.

VSA Texas’ Side by Side Internships are one to three week group, classroom-style sessions that serve 10-15 young adults with disabilities in each class. According to VSA Texas Artworks Director April Sullivan, the program began in 2010 after staff noticed a gap in opportunities for students age 16-22. “After the structure of high school ends, we hear a lot from parents and students with questions about what they can get involved with now,” says Sullivan. The Side by Side internships aim to provide opportunities within a technology and arts-based environment during this important transitional time.

Side by Side began as a one-on-one mentoring program, where students with disabilities would be paired with a professional in their field of interest. As excitement and participation grew, VSA Texas moved to the group, classroom-style program that exists now. Internships have covered careers in music and recording, animation, and fiction and documentary filmmaking. The current internship class is studying with radio professionals.

Two Side by Side students in a recording studio.

Side by Side students in a recording studio.

Sullivan says the internship participants have learned a great deal from their hands-on experiences. She cited the success of a student who participated in a recent filmmaking workshop, who is now working as an assistant to the animation instructor. She also mentioned how impressed the animation instructor was with his students. “[The instructor] was blown away by the quality of the participants, who were so focused and interested in creating characters. He said he wished all his students would be like this!” recounts Sullivan.

VSA Vermont’s Mentoring Program grew out of a similar need for more arts opportunities for students age 16-22. Program Manager Toby MacNutt said that alumni of their successful in-school, classroom arts program for high school students with disabilities were asking, ‘What can I do now?’

VSA Vermont mentors are pictured working on art projects.

VSA Vermont mentors at a recent training session.

The mentoring program, now in its inaugural year, is VSA Vermont’s response to that call for continued arts learning opportunities. MacNutt says they match high school students with disabilities with adults with disabilities in the student’s community. This fall, the mentors and students are meeting one-on-one during the school day for supported arts activities. In the spring, they will work on moving out into the community for arts activities on their own. “The activities are based on the interests of the student and their mentor. It’s low pressure, collaborative arts learning that focuses on building a connection with the mentor,” says MacNutt.

The mentors must complete comprehensive, arts-integrated mentorship training before working with their student. The training not only covers the logistics of the program’s rules, policies, and best practices, but also explores the benefits of mentorship, arts learning, and the combination of the two.

VSA Vermont mentors are pictured working on art projects.

VSA Vermont mentors

The inaugural group of mentors includes previous students with disabilities who participated in VSA Vermont programs, as well as other community members. MacNutt hopes that program alumni continue to serve as mentors to create an intergenerational support system for these youth in transition. “It’s so hard to imagine your future as a person with a disability if you don’t know any other adults with disabilities,” says MacNutt, “and that’s what is so valuable about the mentor/mentee relationships we are creating.”

For more information about the Side by Side Internships at VSA Texas, visit http://www.vsatx.org/sidebyside/index.html. To learn more about VSA Vermont’s Mentorship Program, visit http://www.vsavt.org/arts-education/high-school/.

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