Five Tips for Professional Learning Content: Preparing Arts Teachers to Work with Students with Disabilities

By Dr. Sharon Malley

Many members of the VSA Network provide professional learning opportunities for arts teachers and teaching artists working with students with disabilities. Here are 5 suggested content areas to consider when developing curricula for teachers.

  1. Knowledge of disability from the inside out. When teaching about disability, addressing medical terminology and conditions facilitates a general understanding of characteristics of particular disabilities. To increase understanding, create opportunities for learners to gain knowledge about the experience of disability through panel discussions, videos, and literature sensitive to and representing the perspectives of people with disabilities in your region or country.
  1. Knowledge of your country’s laws and practices pertaining to educating students with disabilities. Essential to working with students with disabilities in schools is an understanding of the laws governing their education. Areas to cover include the rights of students with disabilities, how students are identified as having a disability, the supports that students are provided based on their disabilities, and the expectations of teachers working with them. If your country’s laws are generally stated, it is likely there are particular practices and expectations within given school systems. Knowledge of these practices will increase teacher competence.
  1. Knowledge of the roles of other stakeholders, such as special educators and other professionals, administrators, and parents. When working with students with disabilities, teachers are not working in isolation. There are many individuals central to the student’s education and life. Arts teachers can benefit from understanding the roles of the various stakeholders and how best to communicate and collaborate with them.
  1. How to design lessons responsive to differences. Essential to teaching is the ability to design curricula and lesson plans that provide opportunities for all students to learn. Arts teachers need facility in using tools for developing plans, such as the Universal Design for Learning framework, and appropriate accommodations for individualized student engagement and learning.
  1. How to maximize the creative potential of students with significant disabilities. Arts teachers working with students with significant disabilities might have particular concerns that they are not “reaching” their students. Knowledge of communication supports used by students, evidence-based practices, and techniques for targeting instruction through formative (on-going) evaluations can increase arts teachers’ effectiveness in working with students with significant disabilities.


A headshot of Dr. Sharon Malley

Dr. Sharon Malley

Dr. Sharon Malley is an educator, researcher, and national consultant with over 30 years of professional endeavors supporting people with intellectual disabilities and autism, in arts and special education. She is currently co-editing the Handbook of Arts Education and Special Education, to be published by Routledge in 2017, serves on the Professional Advisory Board of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, and directs a model mentorship program for artists with disabilities in Arlington, Virginia.


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