Announcing the Winners of the 2018 VSA International Young Soloists Competition

This year marks the 34th anniversary of the VSA International Young Soloists Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program that recognizes talented, emerging artists ages 14-25 with disabilities from all over the world. The four young musicians who have been named winners of the 2018 award are: violinist Eva Casado Ariza, age 22; Dennis O’Keefe, a 25-year-old percussionist; 18-year-old cellist Madeline Sheard; and the Out of Time Barbershop Quartet.

A photo of Eva Casado Ariza, a young woman with short reddish brown hair holding a violinEva Casado Ariza, age 22, is a violinist and conductor of who was diagnosed at age 12 with post-viral Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Music, with concentrations in Violin Performance and Instrumental Conducting at the University of Florida. While working as a graduate assistant, Casado Ariza performs regularly as concertmaster, in the official quartet of the university, and as the assistant conductor of the University Orchestra. She aims to pursue a doctoral program to develop a brighter future for rising generations of young music students with disabilities.

A photo of Dennis O'Keefe, a young man with brown hair wearing a white collared shirt, dark suit jacket, and striped tieDennis O’Keefe, age 25, is a percussionist from Rochester, New York. He has performed across the Upstate Region of New York State and in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, including at the Kutztown Celebrate Marimba! Festival. Born autistic, O’Keefe received his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance in 2015 from the Ithaca College School of Music under the guidance of Gordon Stout and Conrad Alexander and his Master’s Degree in Music Performance in 2018 from the State University of New York at Fredonia under the guidance of Karolyn Stonefelt.

A photo of Madeline Sheard, a young woman with brown hair wearing a green print dress and holding a violinMadeline Sheard, age 18, studies cello with Mina Fisher and has won numerous competitions, including Schubert Club, Thursday Musical, and Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s MN Varsity Competition. Her solo engagements have included the LaCrosse Symphony Orchestra and the Salon se Lève Young Artist Concert Series. Sheard studies chamber music with the Artaria Chamber Music School and has attended summer festivals including Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine. She is principal cellist of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies and will tour internationally with them this summer. Sheard has a hearing loss and is grateful for the chance to share her music with others!

A photo of four young men standing in a row, wearing collared shirts, red suspenders, and red bow ties, smilingThe Out of Time Barbershop Quartet has been entertaining audiences in New York State’s Capital Region since 2016. Devin Canavally (lead), Burke Herrick (tenor), Christian Gomez (baritone), and Bobby Frazier (bass) are vocal performance majors attending the School of Music at Schenectady County Community College, part of the State University of New York. As members of the college a cappella club, the four friends decided to take their love for singing and entertaining to the next level. As a quartet, these singers have developed a classic and tightly harmonized sound, sharing their passion and excitement for barbershop music and bringing joy and inspiration to their listeners. Out of Time has been specially invited to perform for college functions, and has given concerts at Camphill Ghent in Chatham, Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia, and live on the air in the studio of the WGY radio station, along with churches and retirement centers in the community. In addition, each is a member of the SCCC School of Music’s select chorus, which recently performed with the Albany Symphony. In the summer of 2017, Burke Herrick, who has cerebral palsy and visual impairments, performed as an ensemble member in Porgy and Bess at the internationally acclaimed Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.

These young artists will travel to Washington, D.C. for a performance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on May 30, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. The performance is free and open to the public, and will be streamed live online at; a recording of the concert will be available for viewing after May 30 in the Millennium Stage online archive.


Digital Storytelling Program Empowers Students with Disabilities

A young woman operates a video camera outside while others look on.

Students operate video cameras as part of the OCCTAC program.

At the Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center (OCCTAC), a year-long program in technology, arts, and inclusive leadership training offered youth with disabilities an opportunity to use digital storytelling as a tool for self-empowerment. The program, held quarterly from October 2016-August 2017, taught high school juniors and seniors fundamentals of art, video production, and self-advocacy.

Pheobe Stanciell, After School Arts Coordinator at OCCTAC, says that many of the students came into the program with no prior experience in art, so the first sessions featured lessons on the elements of art and color. Then the students explored the basics of video production and technology. Next, the program leaders started a conversation with the students about what it means to have a disability, the differences between advocacy and self-advocacy, and how they address challenges they face.

Stick figures drawn on yellow sticky notes, arranged in two rows of four notes.

An example of a storyboard created by students at OCCTAC.

Armed with their new knowledge, the students broke into teams and created their own original short film projects. Stanciell says storyboarding was an important part of the students’ creative process. “Our teaching artist showed the students how to create a storyboard collaboratively by giving the students sticky notes and encouraging them to contribute to their team’s story by writing or drawing on their note. It was a great and flexible way for each team to work together since the notes could be easily rearranged as their story unfolded,” she explains.

The conversations that happened during the self-advocacy lessons inspired many of the students’ films. According to Stanciell, many of the film projects tackled topics like bullying of students with disabilities and how to stand up for your peers. She adds, “Some students walked away from the program saying, ‘I might want to do video editing or be a camera operator professionally,’ and that’s exciting. But everyone also leaves with increased self-confidence and leadership skills to help prepare them for the future.”

Announcing the 2018 VSA International Young Soloists Call for Entries


A photograph of the back of a young woman in a green dress with shoulder length brown hair as she sings on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.Each year, the VSA International Young Soloists Competition recognizes outstanding young musicians with disabilities, ages 14-25. These emerging musicians from around the world receive a $2,000 prize, professional development activities, and the opportunity to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. If you or someone you know is interested in applying for the 2018 VSA International Young Soloists Award, check out these application tips before submitting your entry:

  1. Upload high quality, live recordings. Professional recordings are not necessary. Video recordings are recommended but not required. If you are using accompaniment, it should be live and not pre-recorded.
  2. Submit pieces that showcase your proficiency as a musician. Please choose selections focusing on your primary instrument regardless of whether you play multiple instruments.
  3. Variety is encouraged. We encourage you to submit selections by different composers showcasing facility with different styles or eras of music.
  4. This award is for excellence in performance, not songwriting or composition. Original compositions may be submitted, but will not augment your score. Select pieces that showcase your technical skill, artistry, and musicianship as a performer.
  5. Carefully review all elements of your application before submission. Applicants will not be notified if components of their application are missing.

You can find more information about the 2018 VSA International Young Soloists Competition on the Kennedy Center’s website. Application materials should be submitted no later than February 7, 2018. Questions about the VSA International Young Soloists Program can be sent to

Playwright Discovery Call for Scripts Now Open!

A girl with long braids and glasses, wearing a pink shirt, looks at the script she is holding while a man in a gray baseball hat and gray sweatshirt looks on.

A past VSA Playwright Discovery Award winner works on her script.

Do you know a budding creative writer? The annual VSA Playwright Discovery Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, is accepting scripts for its 2018 competition through January 17, 2018.

The Playwright Discovery Program invites young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities, in U.S. grades 6-12 (or equivalents) or ages 11-18 for non-U.S. students, to explore the disability experience through the art of writing for performance: plays, screenplays, spoken word poetry (for single performer or a group), or music theater. Writers are encouraged to craft short works from their own experiences and observations, create fictional characters and settings, or choose to write metaphorically or abstractly about the disability experience.

Six students stand on a black box stage floor holding glass awards, along with a seventh student whose face appears on a screen; audience members are applauding.

Past VSA Playwright Discovery Award winners are recognized for their writing at the Kennedy Center.

Selected winners in the Senior Division (grades 10-12 / ages 15-18) will receive exclusive access to participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and the opportunity to participate in staged readings and workshops alongside the nation’s premier collegiate playwrights as well as participate in the festival’s award ceremony.

Before you or your students apply online, consider the following six tips for creating a winning script.

  1. Address the topic of disability in a meaningful way. Be thoughtful about how you incorporate disability into your script, and try to avoid clichés. Check out the playwriting resources available on the Kennedy Center’s website, including a series of short essays on the disability experience written by theater professionals with disabilities.
  2. Thoroughly develop the plot. Vary the stakes throughout your story to increase the sense of mystery and interest. Incorporate plot twists and subplots, but remember to resolve them.
  3. Pace the action well and sustain interest throughout. Many scripts have promising starts, but convenient or rushed conclusions. If the plot unfolds throughout your script, you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
  4. Make your characters believable and compelling. The characters in your play should elicit an emotional or intellectual response from your audience. Work on making them relatable and give them opportunities to learn and grow throughout the story.
  5. Use dialogue effectively. Dialogue is the playwright’s tool to further character development and express a range of human emotions. It should also reflect the writer’s language skills and a sense of natural speech patterns.
  6. Make your script your own. Tell a story that is unique, complex, and surprising, and your script will stand out!

The 2018 VSA Playwright Discovery Program is accepting applications until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, January 17. Applications must be submitted online.

Urban Artisans Prepares Students with Disabilities for Careers, In or Out of the Arts

Two smiling, male students work with clay at a table in the ArtMix studio.It was more than 16 years ago that staff at ArtMix in Indianapolis, Indiana, and officials in the Indianapolis Public Schools identified a need to better prepare students with disabilities age 16-22 for life after school. Knowing that the arts could train students in pre-vocational skills and aid in personal growth, ArtMix began its Urban Artisans program, training students in the making, marketing, and selling of artwork in a professional studio setting.

Today, over 60 students with disabilities participate in Urban Artisans each year, according to Linda Wisler, ArtMix’s Vice President of Programs. Wisler says a key to the program’s success was creating the right environment for teaching those important pre-vocational skills. “Offering the students a learning venue outside of school really motivated and excited them. They all share a love of art and look forward to their time in our studios,” she explains.

All of the Urban Artisans participants are paid a stipend or hourly wage for their work in the program, where they create artwork alongside teaching artists that is sold in local galleries and creative outlet shops. Proceeds from the sale of the items go directly to support the Urban Artisans program. Katy Deadmond, ArtMix’s Manager of Community Outreach, says that the students work as a team and are paid as such, adding, “[t]hey have a real sense of pride and accomplishment when they get that paycheck.” Wisler notes that paying the students also promotes their leadership skills, saying they “start having high expectations for each other!”

Four rows of clay flowerpots are displayed on white shelves, with a tall plant to their right. There is a sign next to the flowerpots that says "ArtMix."

Flowerpots created by Urban Artisans students are displayed at a gallery in Indiana.

Wisler says the Urban Artisans line of products is known for certain items, like flowerpots, serving platters, and small animal sculptures, but also includes weavings, painted silk scarves, and large canvas paintings. “Many of the objects we make evolve organically, based on what the students enjoy creating and what is marketable,” says Deadmond. The students also work on commissioned pieces and contribute to some sort of community service activity; this year, they are making centerpieces for the Indianapolis Library’s gala.

Urban Artisans includes both a school year session, when students work in the ArtMix studio as part of their school day, and a summer session. Both sessions are designed for students to be in the studio three times each week, with about 25 students participating during the school year and 30-35 in the summer. ArtMix teaching artists also work with 10-12 Urban Artisans students in their school classroom, as a first step for those who may not be ready to participate in the studio environment yet.

A young woman, wearing a headband and blue, tie-dyed tee shirt, uses a fork as she sculpts with clay; a small dog sculpture sits on the table beside her.

An Urban Artisans student works on an animal sculpture.

Wisler and Deadmond emphasize that while the students’ technical artistic skills improve over the course of their time in Urban Artisans, they make tremendous gains in other skills that are transferrable to any job or life situation. “We see major improvement in the students’ social skills, including their ability to work in a team and accept one another’s differences. We even hear from parents that their students are more willing to clean up at home since it is part of the routine at the end of each Urban Artisans session,” says Wisler.

Deadmond also notes that the students’ self-awareness increases throughout the program, as seen in the self-evaluations they complete at each session. She explains, “Some of the questions we ask are about their behaviors and mood, and over time in the self-evaluations, we see the students begin to realize how they are impacting their co-workers. Ultimately, this leads to a hugely important, transferrable, pre-vocational skill: having respect for yourself and those around you.”



Read more about the work done by ArtMix (formerly VSA Indiana) and other organizations to aid young adults in their career development in the 2012 publication Transition to Employment: Model Projects Fostering Careers in the Arts for Youth with Disabilities.

Teaching Students with ASD “High Value Skills for High Value Work” at FilmAcademy360

A smiling young man wearing headphones works at a computer in the FilmAcademy360 production studio. There is a green screena dn other students working in the background.When Program Director David Di Ianni created FilmAcademy360, a part of Spectrum360 in Livingston, New Jersey, he was interested in teaching students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) “high value skills for high value work.” What he means by that, he says, is that with appropriate training and skill development, the young adults in the program could someday attain work that is both stimulating and well paid. A cohort of seven students with ASD recently completed the FilmAcademy360 program in advanced video editing with great success, opening doors to future professional opportunities.

The FilmAcademy360 program has three phases, beginning with introducing students to theoretical concepts of editing and basic filmmaking. Students, who visit the studio twice a week, learned things like thinking in shots and understanding the progression of shots as a basis for visual storytelling media. Di Ianni says understanding this cinematic language is “…a necessary skill for all filmmakers and digital storytellers.”

Two young men operate a video camera.Phase two of the program was the teaching of Adobe Premiere professional editing software. A major goal of the FilmAcademy360 program was for students to gain proficiency in 10 categories of skills using the software, demonstrated through a score of 80% or higher on assessments. Di Ianni says that, after realizing the recent cohort of students were very visual learners, they adapted the text-heavy Adobe Premiere curriculum and added video lessons. The video curriculum, in conjunction with their in-person classroom instruction, helped all seven students pass the skills assessments, several with perfect scores.

The third phase of the program exposed the students to a professional work environment, both at the FilmAcademy360 production studio and at nearby Elm City Communications. The young adults were encouraged to develop relationships with outside producers, hopefully leading to future work opportunities. Students created their own professional showreel to submit to potential employers, along with a resume and profiles on websites like Upwork and Di Ianni and the other instructors also worked closely with the students on verbal and nonverbal communication skills, using video recordings as a learning tool.

A young woman looks up from her computer where she is editing video. She is wearing a denim jacket and green shirt.Di Ianni emphasizes that even though the program may be over for their recent seven students, FilmAcademy360 will continue to support their professional development. “We have an open door policy to support these students,” he says, continuing, “If they get a freelance gig, they can come into our studio and do the work here. We made a commitment to these students, and intend to support their future progress to whatever degree we can.”

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. 

IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment Offers Career Development Opportunity to Deaf Students

Eight students are standing and stepping to their right while raising their arms to mid-chest level.

Students participate in a movement activity at IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment workshop. Photo credit: Rich Stillwell Photography

In July 2017, New York City’s IRT Theater wrapped up their sixth annual Westside Experiment summer intensive for high school age youth. This two-week career development program pairs experimental theater artists with adolescents working to find to find their identity and voice.

For the first time in 2017, IRT made the Westside Experiment fully accessible for students and theater professionals who are Deaf and have hearing loss. Nine students who are Deaf or have hearing loss joined nine hearing students in the program, and they worked side-by-side for the two weeks under the instruction of lead teachers Monique Holt and Luane Davis Haggerty.

American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters were present throughout the intensive, and ASL was incorporated into the workshops through lessons on ASL poetry and storytelling. Students also spent time studying other theater-making techniques, including movement, improvisation, nonverbal communication, mime, mask work, writing, stage combat, and collaboration. There were also opportunities for students to talk with arts administrators, including Julia C. Levy, Executive Director of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company.

IRT producing artistic director Kori Rushton says that, in addition to the inclusive group of participating students, the teaching staff also included several theater professionals who are Deaf or have hearing loss. Rushton points to the diversity of the student participants, who came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and with varying levels of experience in the arts and in Deaf culture, as one of the program’s strengths. “We had a goal of crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries,” she explains, adding, “it was thrilling to watch this cohort embrace the challenge and exceed expectations.”

The students called the program a valuable, enjoyable learning experience, with several noting how sad they were to see the two weeks end. One Deaf student commented that he learned many new things at the Westside Experiment, which “…changed my perspective of what I want to become in the future.” Rushton says IRT hopes to continue to nurture the young theater artists, Deaf and hearing, and make sure they know that they have an artistic home at IRT.

Five Tips on Developing an Arts Internship Program for Students with Disabilities

By April Sullivan

The transitional age of 16-22 is an important time in life. Students start thinking beyond the school-ordered day and about how to apply their interests and skills to a job or career. Many students with disabilities find this transition very difficult. Some end up stuck at home watching TV or playing video games, unsure of how to move forward with less structure in their lives. VSA Texas created our Side by Side Internship program to meet the needs of young adults as they face this transition period. The following tips are provided to assist you in creating a successful arts internship program for students with disabilities to help them take that next step in life, using their creativity.

  1. Think broadly. We all want to be the rock star, lead actor, morning radio DJ. But we can’t start at the top. We have to work our way up and be realistic about our goals. At VSA Texas, we designed our internship program to focus on all areas of a creative field, from the roadie to the make-up designer to the music library organizer. A broad look at the field gives students multiple entry points to choose from at their current skill level.
  1. Pick passionate mentors. Find members of your creative community who are interested in sharing their steps to success with hands-on opportunities and the ability to model professional behavior, while sharing the fun details of being a local artist. They don’t have to be experts in working with interns with disabilities; that part can be supplemented by your staff and trained volunteers. They do, however, need to be passionate about their field and willing to be open and patient in sharing their knowledge.
  1. Make the interns work for their spot. We have designed a serious application process for our program. This helps us get to know our applicants and find out who is really passionate about the internship subject matter. It also helps us weed out individuals whose parents or teachers complete the application for them (without their input vs. as an accommodation) or those who are just looking for something (anything!) to do.   In order to apply for an internship, interns must send in an application, two letters of recommendation, and a resume. Sometimes we ask for a sample of the applicant’s work. Following a rigorous process will help you get a cohesive group of students who are all there for the same purpose.
  1. Be prepared for all challenges. Even after choosing the best mentors and the best interns, there are always issues that come up. We have found it useful to host an open house before the internship begins so that we can answer parents’ questions, let interns get used to our space, and observe our new interns in a social setting. This gives us a glimpse into the challenges we may face. You can’t really tell how each class is going to gel until the interns actually come together as a group. Assess what needs tweaking throughout the program so that each intern gets the most out of the experience.
  1. Have Fun! No one is having fun if you are not having fun. Remember you work in a creative field, so let your creativity lead the way. If you always keep your goal in mind, you generally can’t go wrong.
April Sullivan headshot

April Sullivan

April Sullivan has worked as the Artworks Director at VSA Texas for thirteen years. She manages the Side by Side Internship program, working with young adults with disabilities as they learn skills in film, music, animation, radio, and soon, photography.