When I explain that my work with children and youth finds me at the intersection of theater, education and disability, many people assume that I am using drama for therapeutic purposes or to teach social skills. And while I firmly believe that experiences in drama and the performing arts inherently have therapeutic benefits for all young people-and in fact can organically result in improved social and communication skills-that is not why I do this work. No, I do this work because I believe it is vital for young people of all abilities to have access to experiences that enable them to discover their full creative potential and make sense of the world in which we live.
Recently I've had several of these conversations and they caused me to reflect on the often popular perception that a young person with a disability is (or should be) participating in activities solely for therapeutic benefit. I speak with many parents and families as part of my work, and from what I conclude, many students with disabilities are inundated with therapy in practically every aspect of their lives-in school, at home and throughout their extracurricular activities. That's a lot of work, and it's no doubt exhausting. After all, shouldn't a child-any child, regardless of ability-be able to participate in an arts experience with the sole purpose of exploring an art form and expressing creativity?
That said, the arts often provide an accessible entry point for students of all abilities to engage in not only academic content, but to begin to process and make sense of our world. The "Theory of Multiple Intelligences," as outlined by Dr. Howard Gardner truly speaks to the many ways that the arts can create avenues of success for children of all abilities. Gardner's theory posits that we all possess different capacities of intelligence that allow us to learn and experience our world in different ways. No one person possesses just one of these intelligences; rather we each have different proportions of these intelligence areas and this impacts how we best learn, engage and express our own thoughts and ideas. The more "traditional" intelligences include: verbal-linguistic, and logical-mathematical: focusing on the processing and expression of written and spoken language and the concepts of numbers, sequencing and logic. This tends to be what the majority of our standardized tests focus on as a measure of academic success. So where does that leave our "nontraditional" learners-those students who might process and communicate through strengths in the other intelligence capacities? In fact, Gardner outlines seven more intelligences: visual-spatial (seen in those who process through pictures, maps and diagrams), musical (seen in those who utilize patterns and rhythms) and bodily-kinesthetic (seen in those who engage through movement and object manipulation), all address the way we physically interact with our environments. Interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences focus on our connection to ourselves and others. The naturalist and existential intelligences focus heavily on how individuals relate to their environment and the world beyond themselves.
Arts Nurture Skills and Interests
Using these multiple intelligences as entry points provides a way for children of differing abilities to be successful-and, more importantly, it provides a way in which to measure that success. As it turns out, almost all of these intelligences are accessible through arts experiences. Using the arts, teachers and parents can find new ways to nurture a child's skills and interests in a way that helps her grow her creativity, self-confidence, awareness and adaptability. Most importantly, the arts often create a level playing field-a place where societal-imposed barriers and self-determined limits are no longer valid. There are countless examples of how, through an arts experience, students with disabilities move from the fringes of their classroom (and the content therein) to become fully engaged and central within the learning process.
Arts in the Schools
It has never been more urgent to make sure these types of experiences are reaching our young people-all of them. Recently the U.S. Department of Education released a report on their survey of arts education in public elementary and secondary schools. Among several staggering statistics, the results showed that in more than 40 percent of our nation's secondary schools, coursework in the arts was not a requirement for graduation in the 2009-10 school year. And despite the fact that the arts have proven beneficial by increasing and refining the skills of creativity and innovation (highly prized attributes in the next generation of our work force), few schools are doing anything to incorporate the arts as an expectation of career and college readiness. Unfortunately the arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high poverty schools, and often for children with disabilities-both demographics thatdesperately need the experiences and entry point that the arts can provide. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated that this is not only an equity issue, but a civil rights issue. The sad fact is that throughout our own country, as well as the world, the arts are often thought of as inaccessible to young people with disabilities-as learners, as artists and even as consumers. As a result, those with disabilities might struggle to see how they "fit" into this part of our society and culture. A civil rights issue indeed!
Success Leads to More Success
Years ago, when I had just graduated from college and was starting out in this field, I watched my mentor use the arts to "rescue" a student with sensory and learning disabilities who had fallen through the cracks and quite frankly been left behind, almost intentionally, by the educational system that was designed to serve him. The teachers and school administration had all but given up when my mentor stepped up to create the infrastructure for this student through an arts experience. I asked my mentor the "why" and "how" behind his actions. I remember his words: "If he can succeed here, he'll know he can succeed elsewhere, and it will create a domino effect in his whole life." I watched it happen. Over a period of several months, I watched this student become more confident in his abilities, more confident in his communication skills, and more confident that he could succeed in school. A student who was disengaged, disinterested, and had no hope became a proud, engaged and excited young man who saw a future for himself beyond the present-and most importantly beyond his past.
Research and the latest employment trends show that creative and innovative thinkers are the ones who will not only succeed, but thrive, in our future economy. Using the arts as a way to foster that creativity and innovation will open doors to those children who previously were not prepared to participate in and contribute to that future. I for one cannot wait to see the world they create.
Diane L. Nutting is the Director of Access and Inclusion for Imagination Stage in Bethesda. imaginationstage.org, 301-280-1660