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  • Facilitating pARTicipation with Adapted Repurposed Tools

    Deborah Schwind (right) and Judith Schoonover

    Deborah Schwind (right) and Judith Schoonover

    Thursday, January 07, 2016

    *This article originally appeared on the Council for Exceptional Children Division of Visual and Performing Arts Education website and has been reprinted below.*

    Authored by: Deborah B. Schwind, M.Ed., OTR/L; Judith Schoonover, M.Ed., OTR/L, ATP, FAOTA (Loudoun County Public Schools)

    Deborah Schwind, an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience and a current student in Drexel University's online Doctor of Health Science in Rehabilitation Sciences program, works to make art classrooms more accessible for students with disabilities.


    Every student can create with the right tool for the job!  Universal Design for Learning principles stress multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression.  With simple modifications, it is possible to ensure that all students can be engaged, and express themselves through art.  Adaptations, modifications, and (very) low tech assistive technology (AT) supports can be used and customized to improve access to art with easily found materials.  Based on their experience providing support in art classes, two occupational therapists designed simple Adapted Repurposed Tool (ART) kits that can be put to immediate use. Everyday materials and dollar store delights were used along with traditional resources to develop a workshop for educators, paraprofessionals, and related service providers to support inclusive environments and participatory experiences for all students during art instruction.

    The art room is a unique setting for students with disabilities as they can be successful and can actively engage not only with the materials but also with their peers.  "Learning through the arts" and not just learning in art can be quite powerful.  In the general education classroom, there are right and wrong answers.  During art instruction in the classroom or the art room, there is not a right or wrong answer when completing a project, since it is designed around self-expression.  For students with disabilities, participating in a class where they can express themselves without being incorrect can build self-esteem and foster independence.

    Inclusion with typical peers in the art room allows for socialization and active engagement.  The benefits influencing academic achievement include development of fine motor skills by holding and manipulating tools; experience with sequencing needed for math, writing and reading; and the influence of directionality in action on visual perceptual skills needed for number and letter formation, reading, writing and math skills.  Sensory processing can be addressed in the art room through the exposure to textures and other sensory inputs.  Incorporating art into language arts enhances critical thinking skills and written expression skills through improved observational skills and the ability to imagine while motivation and engagement can impact academic achievement and overall sense of self-esteem.       

    Universal Design for Learning (UDL) "is an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students." CAST is a nonprofit education research and development organization that promotes UDL and its principles of multiple means of engagement, action and expression, and representation--principles that can easily be applied to the art classroom.  UDL stresses the development of flexible curricula to meet the needs of all students incorporating a multi-sensory approach and adapting materials and modifying instructions so all students are successful.  UDL recognizes the unique strengths, experiences, and needs each student brings to the classroom.  Through the UDL approach, all students have better access not just to the arts but to all content.  The art room allows for self-expression and exploration especially for sudents who may have difficulty expressing themselves in other ways such as verbally.  By integrating the arts, a richer, more engaging and more meaningful learning opportunity is created that serves to help a variety of learning styles.

    Because art can be so powerful for students, it is important that projects, tools and materials are adapted as needed so students with and without disabilities can succeed. Based on personal experiences supporting students, art instructors, and paraprofessionals in the art room, Schwind and Schoonover created a series of low tech assistive technology (AT) supports that could be used and customized to improve access to art with easily found materials.  The supports were assembled in Adapted Repurposed Tool (ART) kits and a series of workshops took place to empower educators, paraprofessionals, and related service providers to make their own tools and share implementation ideas.  Kit contents included tools to assist with grasping of art tools made from PVC pipe, wiffle balls, pool noodles, milk jug handles, and film canisters; weighted marking tools for additional sensory input and to reduce tremors; easels for optimal reaching and viewing constructed from three ring binders or pizza boxes; crayons that had been melted and remolded in muffin tins and repurposed glue stick tubes; rulers secured in place with magnets on cookie sheets with raised tactile cues and handles; “art words” communication boards; visual cues for sequencing of activity steps including “first/then” boards; do-it-yourself spring-loaded scissors, and more.

    During the workshops it was stressed that whatever teaching methods, assistive technologies and behavior supports found to be effective in the general education classroom or special education classroom should be implemented in the art classroom, and be used throughout the student's day to promote success, consistency and familiarity.  Environmental adaptations such as table top easels or wheelchair easels with stabilizing material such as clamps, tape or adhesive liners to keep the materials stationary and allow visual and physical access to materials were discussed, as well as weighted objects or utensils for students with extraneous movements or differences in sensory perception.  Adjusting the seating or changing the positioning was encouraged for optimal viewing and fine motor control.  Interchanging media such as using charcoal instead of pencils or chalk instead of markers was one of many examples given to illustrate modifying the assignment to ensure success.   

    Strategies described for sensory processing differences included earphones for noise sensitivity, wearing gloves or touching the media using tools for sensory sensitivity, creating boundaries with a visual tape line for difficulty maintaining appropriate personal space, movement breaks, social stories about art and weighted lap pads or compression vest as recommended by the occupational therapist, Strategies suggested for students with visual impairments included larger fonts or larger materials on a larger surface, placing items inside a tray to define project boundaries, wrapping paintbrushes, markers and crayons with different textures to assist with color discrimination (e.g. a hair roller can be placed on markers that are pink, jingle bells on items that are red), and use of textured media such as mixing sand in the paint, using sand paper, foils or shredded paper for projects.  Placing needed tools and items in sequential order allows students to process step by step directions via sight or touch.

    Since students with hearing impairments benefit from visual demonstration, it was recommended that the instructor face them when speaking so they can read the instructor’s lips and so the sound is directed to them.  Lights should be kept on for viewing the demonstrations and the instructor's mouth.  Step by step procedures using words or visuals should be provided so students can follow the steps to the projects.  For students with cognitive challenges, use of visuals, demonstrations, and materials placed in sequential order and simplification of the activity was suggested so they do not become overwhelmed. Providing choices of materials, tools and colors can provide a sense of control and ensure engagement.

    It was stressed that communication and visual supports used elsewhere during the school day be used in the art room.  If a communication device is used, then it should be programmed with the vocabulary for the art room to minimize frustration. Visuals for simple signs should be provided to the art teacher and can be placed on a ring or in a binder so access to communication is provided for all those who work with the students.  For behavior challenges, charts and token systems can be used individually or inclusively.  Social stories about the expectations in the art room can help alert the student to expectations that may be unique to the art room.  For those who require warnings or supports for transitions, transition to the art room should not be any different.

    The art room is a special place.  There is a high level of engagement and it is generally a relaxed environment that fosters peer interaction.  Those who may not be successful in the academic classroom can be successful in the arts.  Students with physical challenges, sensory processing difficulties, and hearing impairments, cognitive deficits, communication barriers, social skills weaknesses and behavior challenges benefit from adaptations to the assignments, materials and tools, as well as environmental or ecological changes or enhancement.  Changes to the projects, tools and the media ensure more independence, active engagement, and a higher level of participation.  Each art creation should be unique as the student who creates it.

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