Over the past several months, I have had the privilege to engage with dozens of artists with disabilities across India. Through Youth4Jobs’ new program, Not Just Art, we have worked together to promote and sell their artwork on an international stage. One thing has become clear through these interactions: the importance of bringing creative arts opportunities for people with disabilities into the mainstream, in both the art world and general society. These opportunities not only teach productive new skills, but also encourage creative personal expression.
Though Not Just Art’s primary focus is to support artists with disabilities currently producing fine art, we also want to spread the benefits of art to a new audience. This year, we began holding workshops at our partner school for visually impaired girls. Youth4Jobs has “adopted” this residential government school in Hyderabad as part of a new program of early interventions designed to equip disabled children and teens with employability and life skills. This particular program within the school includes computer and technology education, English language instruction, and a variety of soft skills. These early interventions are essential for improving students’’ skills and self-confidence while they are young. By tapping into their curiosity and eagerness to explore new concepts, we encourage them to try new activities and pursue those they enjoy. It seemed only natural to add a creative element to this mix.
The Value of Art Instruction
These students come from poor and rural backgrounds around Hyderabad. Their visual impairments require specialized accommodation and care that their families cannot afford; on top of this, as girls they are often considered burdens to their families. This is a difficult life for anyone, and especially for children with nowhere else to turn.
A creative outlet can boost their self-esteem and allow them to explore their unique experiences. If they understand from an early age that they are capable of much more than society dictates, they will develop a strong sense of self-worth and go on to demand more from life. Our goal is to equip these students with valuable skills and unshakeable self-confidence—to show that they have the awesome power to create. (While we do encourage active reflection during and after the workshops, it is important to note that this is not a formal art therapy program. Not Just Art intends to bring professional art therapists onboard in the near future.)
There is a small movement in India promoting inclusive art experiences. For instance, the organization Access for All works with museums, galleries, and cultural organizations to conduct accessibility audits and sensitization trainings. They also create “tactile reproductions” of visual art and Braille captions for museums . These services are essential for an egalitarian art experience; I can imagine every student at our school benefiting from this work. But the initial interest in art as a participant begins at home/school, which is where our work unfolds.
For our first workshop, we worked with a local art organization called Anybody Can Paint. For our workshop, they adapted their method of guided painting instruction to accommodate visually impaired participants. This included canvases with raised hot glue outlines, paint trays with spatially organized colors, and extra-detailed descriptions. Around 40 students attended this workshop, along with several volunteers from Youth4Jobs and a few respected guests. It was a great success on all accounts: the students were joyous at having successfully attempted a new activity and the schoolteachers were shocked that they could create artwork without seeing it.
The next workshop was a good opportunity to introduce a new art form. It was part of a year-end camp for a small group of older students, accompanying sessions in life skills, computers, soft skills, and mobility. Among these lessons in critical thinking and technical skills, I organized and led a textile collage workshop. We used small circles cut from old scarves of different colors, arranged in concentric circles to create vibrant patterned collages. I prepared all the materials for this simple activity, from stacks of 2″ fabric circles to raised hot glue rings on the board. The students needed only minimal instruction before they went their own ways, choosing their own colors and textures to include in their collages. The results were lovely—some structured, others freeform, reminiscent of a springtime garden in bloom.
We are planning one more workshop in early June, which I will again organize and lead. This will utilize another tactile art form—perhaps small clay sculptures or painting with nontraditional materials. As with the previous workshop, I am developing the next workshop based on the teachers’ recommendations, the students’ abilities, and research on art education for children with disabilities.
The responses from the first two workshops have been overwhelmingly positive from students and staff alike. Teachers commented on the increased confidence and better moods of the students in the days following the workshops. Students’ comments encapsulated our goals for these workshops. A girl with total blindness said,
“I am super happy—someone has given me a chance to hold the paintbrush and believed in us, and that feeling itself makes me high.”
“I don’t know how the painting looked nor I do know the colors used for the painting, but still I was enjoying [it] and felt that we are treated like any other sighted person. It is a proud moment for me and if someone could give us further training in this field, I am ready to learn and explore.”
I am excited to work again with these creative, talented youth and help build their foundational art knowledge.
Challenges and motivations
These instruction sessions were suitably challenging for me, especially with the language barrier. The students were almost all Telugu speakers, with some proficient in Hindi; just a few knew basic English. My rough Hindi was not sufficient to carry me through it alone and hand gestures would get me nowhere. This was one of several instances in which I was hindered by my own communication limitations. Thankfully, we established a core vocabulary of colors and spatial terms that we all understood. The students were happy to translate for each other and pass on instructions. (We also had school staff and volunteers on hand to assist with translation and with the activities themselves.)
A bigger challenge was ensuring that the activities were designed to accommodate the girls’ abilities. For both workshops, we consulted with school staff on methods of art instruction for students who had never engaged in these activities before. We focused on building on existing skills in order to gain confidence using them in multiple situations. For example, tactile art workshops can lead to increased manual dexterity, which can help in everything from reading Braille to identifying new objects. For both workshops, we included tactile tools for spatial orientation and organization of materials. We also drew on their critical and creative thinking by introducing instructions bit-by-bit, asking students if they could predict what would come next, and allowing them the freedom to move ahead at their own pace and design.
It is difficult to create a workshop allowing for both creative freedom and guided instruction. We want participants to express themselves, but they do require guidance due to novelty of the activities. Workshops like this, however, are the first step in a long journey toward total artistic freedom in thought and method. I wish we had been able to hold more sessions in my time here, but I know that the ones developed from here on will build on our initial experimentation and success. I believe these workshops will inspire students to learn about the empowering potential of art, as creative activity and potential livelihood. As we teach basic techniques and methods, they will be able to imagine new and challenging ways of applying them in everyday life. These workshops lay the foundation for a lifelong passion and a productive career.
All images taken by the author.
 Shah, Siddhant. “How Inclusive Design Can Change the Way We Access Museums.” Architectural Digest, 18 May 2017.