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?

Qualified Teachers

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.

Common Core

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.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Liz Ozol    

    Thanks for this series of posts about how the arts are essential to kids’ education! I appreciate the variety of voices, content areas and reasons why the arts help kids learn, develop emotional intelligence, become more engaged, develop 21st century skills, etc. Happy New Year!

  2. Matt    

    Hi, Anthony –
    Don’t know if you’re aware of this video series and text, but it seems relevant to the topic. Happy new year!

  3. Nash Rich    

    One thing I think is great about the arts, is it exercises creativity, and you are creating something instead of replicating a skill, like math. I have ADHD and struggled through every moment of school in my life. I’m really good at music though. In college, when I had the means to make my own music, it brought more meaning to my life. I agree that arts that bring happiness to people who have learning disabilities. I think this because it feels like school shows us what we aren’t good at most of the time, but it always helped me to hear one of my songs and say, “I made this.” It was highly satisfying to know that I could do something. I’m not bagging on school at all, because I did learn a lot and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

    1. Brian K    

      This is so true! In my class, high school chorus, I find even when we are singing someone else’s music and my students have to follow my settings, they are engaged and take pride in the sound they create. There is something so satisfying in creating something and calling it your own. I am glad that you had music to help guide you through school

  4. James Bergman    

    I loved my art classes. It was fun to learn how to draw and make something out of nothing. I was never any good, but I still tried to enter art contests. So, I think it would probably be better in the common core if it was less focused on imitating art. It is good to look at and learn from renowned artists, but a lot of them are well known because their art is unique.

  5. Brian K    

    I am a high school choral music teacher in Maryland. I agree that the arts are not given attention in schools but not solely “because the arts cannot be tested” as you said. The underlying reason lies with the fact that the arts do not show up in the statistics. Outside of an actual arts school where the curriculum is centered around the arts, when do you hear the statistic, “we had a 95% student passing rate in our arts department”? It doesn’t matter to them and by them I mean the people in charge of supposedly knowing what’s best for our students. School leaders are more interested in who passed the English HSA or the fact that we need to focus on PARCC because it will meet certain requirements or because it will make the school look good and we will be noticed for their accomplishments. This is pretty selfish isn’t it?

    Being a teacher, atleast in my 10 years of experience, there are more and more students with disabilities. We are constantly filling out paperwork for students with learning disabilities. These students struggle and it is because we are not giving them an individualized education. Yes, we are giving them their accomodations and the needs their IEP’s state but are we truly letting them excel in areas where they can find successt? For example, I had a student who loved my class. She loved to sing. This girl might not have been in school if it weren’t for music and the time made available to creatively express herself through something that she absolutely loves. Her guidance counselor took her out of my class because she needed to take another class in order to graduate. The class was a remedial English, needed because she had not passed the HSA. Now, I understand the need to ensure that students are meeting their requirements but it is the perfect example of students being numbers on a test and not individuals with passions, interests and talents. Not only did she love to sing but she wanted to attend college to become a music teacher. Just think on that for a little bit.

    We are a selfish society and it’s permeated into our school leaders. “What is going to make them look good?”. Meanwhile, we have young people who we are trying to prepare for their futures. It’s time to put statistics aside and look at each individual student. Maybe then we will all find success.

  6. hexnerandwriting    

    Thank for explaining that painting classes are a great opportunity for people with disabilities. I wanted to start painting more and maybe take some classes, but never thought to bring my baby sister along. She has a few mental disabilities and wonder if you’re right that she might excel in painting even though all other school subjects are very difficult for her. I’ll try to find a local place that does painting classes for both of us and see where both of our talents lead.

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