The Arts Can Be a Bridge: Promoting Equity at the Intersection of Deaf Education and the Arts.

“Promoting Equity at the Intersection of Deaf Education and the Arts” is a full-day preconference session at the VSA Intersections: Art and Special Education Conference taking place October 25-28, 2019 in Irvine, California. To learn more or register, visit https://education.kennedy-center.org/education/vsa/programs/special_education_conference.cfm

Theater artist, advocate and educator Fred Beam has been a driving force in support of arts learning for D/deaf and hard of hearing (D/HH) students. He and Brian Cheslik, a theater teacher at Texas School for the Deaf and Founding Artistic Director of Deaf Theater Austin, will present at the first session in VSA Intersections history to focus exclusively on arts education and D/HH learners.

Beam is Outreach Coordinator for Sunshine 2.0 at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).

A headshot of a man with long brown hair and a goatee.  His face is central in the picture and he wears a brown patterned shirt.
Fred Beam

As a child, Beam didn’t have access to the performing arts; however, as an undergraduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology, a dance teacher spotted him playing basketball and encouraged him to join a dance class. That interaction led to a vibrant dance career.

In his role as Outreach Coordinator, Beam manages a professional theater troupe of D/deaf and hearing actors at NTID. Sunshine 2.0 offers dual English and American Sign Language performances that educate on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. Performances, which are free and designed for D/deaf and hard of hearing students, also highlight topics pertaining to the Deaf experience.

Beam says he has come full circle, returning to his undergraduate institution to offer access to the arts to D/HH students and encourage others to pursue their passion for the arts.

A black and white headshot of a man with short hair.  He is leaning against a brick wall.
Brian Cheslik

Cheslik has been involved with the theater for over 20 years—performing every functional role in the theater during that time. Now, in addition to his work as an educator and with Deaf Austin Theater, Cheslik is a second-year doctoral student studying Deaf Studies/Deaf Education focusing on LGBTQ Studies and Theater Education.

One of the challenges for theater and arts programming is funding. “Theatre and arts programs are the first to be cut when the budget is decreased,” according to Cheslik. “So we are fighting for survival.”

“There are only a few bilingual Deaf schools in America that have theatre arts programs for their students,” Cheslik asserts. “Theatre provides many social, emotional and educational benefits that are critical to creating the “whole child.”… [W]e need to be preserving the arts instead of cutting them out.”

Beam also recognizes the challenges to providing a robust arts education for D/deaf students—and the benefits of that education. Beam feels as if the arts get lost in an education system that gives preference to core academic subjects.

Beam is a strong advocate for collaboration between people who are hearing and the D/HH community to promote equity in the arts for D/HH students. He believes that the arts can serve as a powerful bridge to connect the Deaf and hearing communities, help teachers connect with students and connect diverse learners to the core academic subjects.

Arts integration is a powerful pedagogical tool. Beam advocates that “the arts can apply in any field,” and that educators need to open their minds to different ways of teaching using the arts. He calls on D/deaf educators to “apply the arts to inspire students to become more than what they are.”

Cheslik encourages hearing educators to reach out to the Deaf community for support in teaching D/HH students.

“The biggest piece of advice that I can provide is to ask for help,” says Cheslik. “[T]alk to a Deaf adult, a Deaf artist, find a resource to help answer all of your questions. But most importantly, include the student. Do not discount them or think that they cannot do something just because they are Deaf. Do whatever is needed to make them feel included and an equal contributor to the team.”

Beam believes that D/deaf children still face attitudinal barriers to participation in the arts.

“Follow your passion,” Beam advises. “Education is valuable, but follow your passion and go with what makes you happy.”

Conference attendees who participate in “Promoting Equity at the Intersection of Deaf Education and the Arts” can expect to learn strategies and skills to foster success in the arts with their D/HH students. Participants will understand the importance of theater education for D/deaf students and gain examples of effective implementation strategies employed by the Texas School for the Deaf Performing Arts Program.

The session will increase D/deaf awareness and help educators foster leadership skills and life skills in their D/HH students through the arts.

Cheslik will also lead a workshop on “Making Theatre Class Accessible to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students.” Cheslik describes the workshop as “focused on mainstream, hearing schools/teachers who might need support in how to accommodate a Deaf/Hard of Hearing student in their theatre classes.”

Overall, Cheslik encourages VSA Intersections attendees to network and learn from each other at the conference.

“I love the artistic energy that flows through the conference,” Cheslik says. “It shows just how truly collaborative the arts can be.”

Beam will also present on “Leadership Training in Theater Arts for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth.” For Beam, promoting D/deaf and hard of hearing leaders is essential. It is vital for D/HH students to have D/deaf and hard of hearing role models so they can envision their own career paths in the arts.

Beam emphasizes that the Deaf community is not solely defined by any one factor.

“Deafness is a rich, diverse community,” Beam said. “It’s not just about whether you can hear or not.”

Beam wants the hearing community to understand that the Deaf community encompasses a vibrant diversity of people of color, many different religions, and the LGBTQ community.

It is imperative that the leaders from the D/HH community also represent that diversity.

“It is powerful to see diversity on stage, and that grids to our community and schools and in a variety of ways,” Beam said. “It builds bridges. That is the only way we can exchange knowledge—through a bridge. The world begins to open up with the exchange of knowledge.”

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