This is the sixth in a series of blog posts focused on the value of art in our lives, and the role art can play in resisting the test and punish model of education. See the intro and links to other posts in the series here.
By Nancy Bailey.
If inclusion is the goal for students with disabilities, as has been described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, then art classes should be a high priority. The arts can level the playing field, because children with difficulties in academic subjects might excel at drawing, painting, acting or dancing and singing.
Not only will the arts provide necessary skills for students with disabilities to express themselves, good art programs can lead to jobs in the arts industry.
More importantly, the arts bring children and teens with disabilities great joy and build high self-esteem. The arts might keep a disengaged student from dropping out of school—and help them to improve in academic areas.
Even the most severely disabled student can, through their senses, appreciate the joy of the arts.
Students of all ages and abilities are shortchanged when they don’t have access to the arts. No public school in America should deny children art or music classes. But, for students with disabilities, the loss of art programs is especially stifling.
Due to many of the school reforms affecting education, many public schools have discontinued art programs. Charter schools marginalize students with disabilities, and who knows what kind of art programs are provided in such schools?
Students with disabilities may or may not get to experience the arts, especially if the school they attend obsesses over high-stakes testing. Because the arts cannot be tested, schools don’t make the arts a priority. The talent lying within a student with disabilities could be lost forever.
Examples of Well-Known Artists with Disabilities
What does the world miss when the arts are ignored in our public schools? There are fine online sites that tell about artists with disabilities. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Alonzo Clemons is a U.S. clay sculptor. He developed disabilities when he was young.
- Buckley Moss is called “The People’s Artist” for her pictures of Amish and Mennonite lifestyles. Moss has dyslexia and had difficulty learning to read in school.
- Tony Deblois, a blind student with autism, is a pianist of musical genius.
- Tom Cruise is one example of many actors living with dyslexia.
- George Lucas was a bored in school. How many Lucases sit in classrooms today with no access to the arts?
Sometimes schools attempt to provide the arts, but they rely on partnerships with outside artistic or performing arts programs. This is not a legitimate school art program, nor is it usually a consistent program. Also, such art teachers could lack important skills and legitimate credentials.
We know that qualified art teachers matter when students with disabilities take an art class. For example, an online survey of 77 art teachers indicated that art teachers feel less prepared to work with students who have physical, visual, severe, and multiple disabilities than regular students (Cramer et al.). This indicates that even real art teachers would benefit from additional coursework on how to assist students with a variety of disabilities.
But the overall push is to get rid of credentialed art teachers and use general education teachers to teach art and blend it into regular lessons. While integrating art into the regular class can make instruction interesting, the arts should stand alone. Public schools need art programs to bring balance to the curriculum. Students with disabilities, like all students, need art instruction and opportunities to express themselves through the arts.
While few associate Common Core and the arts at this time, Alice Wexler, who is an associate professor in art education and wrote Art and Disability: The Social and Political Struggles Facing Education, analyzed Common Core architect David Coleman’s ideas about the arts. She found, in Coleman’s Guiding Principles for the Arts K-12, that Coleman’s emphasis was on students studying and imitating works of art. What seems to be lacking is student centeredness—or providing students opportunities for their personal art expression.
Also, Coleman’s guidelines do not address the benefits of the arts for students with disabilities. His outlook on the arts seems both contrived and controlling which seem contrary to what a good creative arts program should entail.
Denying children, especially children with disabilities, a quality arts program is a huge omission in America’s public schools. Those who have contributed to such exclusion should be held accountable for the damage they have done and continue to do.
We must bring back the arts in our public schools and allow for students with disabilities to express themselves and benefit from the immeasurable joy the arts can bring.
Bailey, N. Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing, 2013) 119-120
Cramer, E., M.B. Coleman, P. Yojeong, S.M. Bell, and J.T. Coles. “Art Educators’ Knowledge and Preparedness for Teaching Students with Physical, Visual , Severe, and Multiple disabilities.” Studies in Art Education. Fall 2015. 5 (1) 6-20.
Wexler, Alice. 2014. “Reaching Higher? The Impact of the Common Core State Standards on the Visual Arts, Poverty, and Disabilities.” Arts Education Policy Review. 115: 52-61, 2014.
Coleman, David. (2011). Guiding Principles for the Arts K-12. http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/docs/guidingprinciples-arts.pdf.