For four years, the Arc of the Capital Area has operated an arts studio in Central Austin where its clients, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities or I/DD, can learn and practice a wide array of visual arts. But this summer, for the first time, it opened its studio to students without I/DD, allowing them to learn alongside its clients and receive the same support and instruction. What’s surprising, says Jerry Slayton, director of the Arc of the Arts studio, is how all of the students have gained from the experience of an inclusive classroom setting.
“It’s socially beneficial for students with I/DD to interact with their peers in what feels like a traditional college setting,” said Slayton. “But for students who are neurotypical or without I/DD, it’s motivating. Seeing their counterparts with I/DD being fearless with how they stylize an image gives them the courage to explore artistically.”
The new courses are actually a collaboration with Austin Community College’s STEPS program, which offers pre-college courses for students with I/DD who are looking to continue their education or enter the workforce. The courses are funded by student fees. To ACC’s Mariah Lossing, program director, the courses were an obvious next step.
“It just made sense,” said Lossing. “I’m constantly looking for more extra-curricular learning opportunities for people with disabilities, and this was a perfect blend of offering arts courses in a supportive environment that already exists at the Arc.” In its fall session starting August 28, students can choose from courses in animation, painting, photography and theater among others.
Slayton says the ultimate goal is to prepare students for internships or apprenticeships on a path toward employment. “Making art for ourselves is a good thing but making art for others is a job,” he said. Slayton says he’s always looking for professional projects the students can complete together. For example, Arc students have designed the materials for an annual conference on I/DD by the University of Colorado.
Mary Van Haneghan, executive director of The Arc, says students with I/DD have a sense of pride that comes from being enrolled in college courses. All students taking the courses earn credits from ACC that they can use toward professional certifications.
“I’m most excited that the courses are inclusive,” said Van Haneghan. “When you exclude any person or group from the majority, you lose something. There’s a benefit to being in a classroom where there are different opinion and different levels of skill. I also think for people with disabilities, it gives them an opportunity to show that they have the capacity to learn, that they can create something. And it challenges other people’s beliefs to see this person with Down’s syndrome, for example, make a beautiful piece of art.”
Note: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, August 20, 2017