Five Tips for Using the Arts to Introduce Job Skills to Youth with Disabilities

By Damon McLeese

Young adulthood is a time of wonder, exploration, and often the time a person lands their first job. For teens with disabilities, this first paycheck may be rather elusive. At VSA Colorado, we use a commission-based project to strengthen their skill set, expose them to the concept of a job, and do amazing things for their self-esteem. The following tips are based on the concept of Commission-Based Creation or creating art for a client.

 

  1. There is no I in team – Very few jobs in this world are done in isolation. We all work in teams and must learn to cooperate, interact, and support one another. Many teens with disabilities have very little opportunity to work in teams, so at VSA Colorado we engage students in a team project. When the work is finished, everyone shares in the success.

 

  1. One coach – Creating art collaboratively is a new experience for many youth with disabilities. Creating art for a specific client is often a more alien concept. At VSA Colorado, we hire a lead artist that is the coach or boss for the team. The job of this coach is to make sure everyone is represented and the work is of the highest quality. It does no one any good if the work is not well presented.

 

  1. Research – Youth with disabilities often have no knowledge of corporate workplace culture. At VSA Colorado, we find visiting the client’s worksite to be critical to understanding the culture of an organization. By visiting the client, teens are able to see a workplace. We focus on the feel and look of the place, the colors, and furniture. Then ask the client what type of art they are looking for and develop ideas collaboratively. When possible, we have the client visit our studio during the creation of the piece.

 

  1. Money matters –A basic understanding of money is one important job skill to develop with youth with disabilities. At VSA Colorado, we create a project budget and share the budget with the team. We address questions like, “How much do you have to work with? What might the materials cost? Where are we going to get the materials?” If possible, we pay each participant to continue the lesson in financial responsibility.

 

  1. Expect professionalism – When teaching job skills, it is important to clearly outline the expectations of the work sessions. Who is responsible for the set up and clean up? What are the behavior expectations? At VSA Colorado, we hold the team accountable and check in with everyone at the conclusion of each session.

 

When the work is completed at our studio, we have every member of the team reflect on the piece and the experience. When possible, we have the team deliver the artwork to the client. Celebrating the teens’ success is important and encourages further use of the skills they have developed.

 

Damon McLeese is the executive director of VSA Colorado/Access Gallery. He has created and manages several innovative programs including the ArtWorks Program, which supports youth with disabilities as they transition from high school to young adulthood. Most of the programs Damon has designed aim to bridge the gap between disability and economic opportunity through the arts. 

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