Considering Special Education and Disabilities in the Art Room (Ep. 232)

In today’s episode, Candido explores the intersection between special education, disability rights, and arts education. Joining him to discuss these topics is Jenna Gabriel, a Ph.D student in arts education at VCU. Listen as they discuss their understandings of disability, our approach to special education, and how we can refine our systems to best help our special education students.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Candido: I consider myself to be a lifelong learner. I enjoy the act of learning and challenging myself as an artist, a teacher, and now as a podcast host. So when the idea of recording an episode on the Anti-Ableist art room came to me, thanks to Sydney Snyder, I agreed, but then had to run and do some research. So as I do, I called on Jenna Gabriel to help explain this movement. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Candido Crespo. I’m so glad you’re able to join us today, but before we start, maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself, who you teach and some of the incredible work that you’re doing.

Jenna: Absolutely. So hi it’s so good to be here. My name is Jenna. I use she/her pronouns. I am a PhD student in art education at Virginia Commonwealth university. I’m looking at how students develop a sense of themselves. And despite all of the things that our schools, our societies, our teachers tell them about disability through the strategies they use, the way they talk, what our support systems are like. And particularly then I’m interested in what that can tell us about the art room and the role of art teachers in disrupt these deficit based framings of who our students are. So I am fortunate to teach in the department of art education and also in the department of foundations of education, teach undergrads and master students in coursework related to sociopolitical struggles for inequity in education, and also the practical coursework for supporting students with disabilities in the art classroom.

I think it’s also important, and I so appreciate in your introduction and past episodes, how you’ve shared a bit about your own identity. I think it’s important to talk a bit about my positionality in this work. So I came into disability identity as an adult. I’d been doing this work for some time and being very clear that I did not lay claim to a disability identity. So I do have a personal investment in this work. And I have done a lot of reflecting on my own of what my understandings of disability were and how that influenced my own identity development when I became disabled. But I also think it’s important to always keep in mind that there’s a lot that my own positionality does not equip me to know.

Candido: So, as I said, incredible work. But you were even doing some of this work prior to entering the doctoral program. Can you tell us a little bit about that as well, so we could get a better understanding of where you’re coming from?

Jenna: Yeah. So my background is actually in the performing arts, I was an actor and director and started teaching students with disabilities really early on. So I worked as a teaching artist in New York city and in Boston, after I finished my master’s program and eventually moved into program administration, program development to a lot of partnership with public schools, particularly in the Boston area. Again, working primarily with students with disabilities as we’ll talk about today, that identity intersects with a whole lot of other systems. So I worked a lot with English language learners, with students who are living in poverty. And then I moved to DC to take a position as the manager of special education at the John Kennedy center for the performing arts. So did a lot of national teacher training for supporting art teachers and working with students with ability and supporting special ed teachers in integrating the arts. And then I moved churchman for this position, for this program.

Candido: Wow. That’s incredible. And I want to congratulate you on your journey thus far. It’s pretty remarkable. Now, in regards to why I’ve called upon you, as I’ve stated in the introduction, there are certain movements that I feel very comfortable discussing, and I feel like I have something to contribute: but today’s topic isn’t one of those. So I’m going to put on my student hat and ask, can you define what it means to be an anti-ableist art educator?

Jenna: Yeah. I think it’s important actually to start with how we define ableism. When we talk about being anti-ableist. And so if it’s okay, I want to actually read the definition of ableism that I use in my work, that I use in my classrooms. And this is a working definition that comes from disabled activists to TL Lewis. And they created this in a community of their colleagues. So TL writes that ableism is a system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds, based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness.

You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. And I really appreciate this definition for a lot of reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that TL is telling us ableism is a system, it’s bigger than just, I don’t discriminate against the students with disabilities in my classroom, or it goes beyond the individual action and calls attention to how ableism operates on this really high level and influences all aspects of our lives. And TL is also telling us that it’s connected to other issues. That ableism assigns this unspoken normal.

And so when we talk about anti-ableist practice, it’s really about challenging how all of these systems show up in our classrooms and designing spaces that enable our students rather than disable them.

Candido: Okay, great. That’s extremely helpful in understanding some of the terminology that we’ll be discussing as well as just setting the tone. And I hope that listeners feel a little bit more comfortable with what we’re discussing as well, but in addition to vocabulary, you’ll also be using some different languages, which include person-first and identity-first, can you maybe explain the difference between the two?

Jenna: Yeah, that’s a great question. Because you’ve probably already heard that I am bouncing back and forth between the two of them. So person-first language is exactly as the label describes, it views the person as the primary identity. A person is separate from their disability, it is something that they have, not something that they are. So when we’re in schools, we hear this as students with disabilities, students with autism students, with ADHD, students who have a physical disability. Identity-first language rather is the opposite. It takes as a central assumption that a person’s disability is an inextricable part of who they are. It can’t be separated from them as the person. So this would be disabled student, autistic student, deaf student. And I use those two examples actually pretty intentionally because there is of course a vibrant deaf culture. And I think we’re seeing more and more increasing numbers of autistic advocates who are saying, “No, my autism is not a condition. This is a part of my identity.”

Typically, in the United States, person-first is the dominant. This is the standard, I think we can point to historically the ways we view disability services as charity in this country, the way we still operate on this medicalized understanding of what disability is, which lends itself to this idea that disability is a condition. And person-first is of course the dominant standard in our schools. But I will say particularly in the context of US public schooling, unless I know that I am talking about a student whose personal preferences I’m aware of. And who chooses to identify using identity-first language, I’ll tend to default to person-first when I talk about schools.

Candido: Okay. Thank you for that clarification. I think that’s some important information to know as we continue to learn from you. I think that as our teachers, we feel like we are doing a really good job of trying to differentiate and put into practice some of the techniques that are necessary in order to provide an environment where all students can succeed.

Jenna: And it is exactly as you say, it’s a mindset shift. And I think it’s important to acknowledge there is a lot we’re already doing. I think there’s a way of talking about these huge shifts of saying special education has these inherently deficit based assumptions and approaches that can make teachers feel really self conscious. And can make us feel really put on the spot, and we’re not doing well, not doing right by our students in the classrooms. So I want to start by saying that there’s a lot that teachers are already doing. There are great practical resources out there. Art teachers are naturally creative, they’re intuitive. We all want to see our students succeed. So we’re doing a lot of differentiation and support without thinking about it. So we’re not talking about this drastic shift of, let’s absolutely upturn our practices and completely change everything that we’re doing.

Let’s reflect critically on where these practices originated, what assumptions they’re based on, and because of those assumptions, what harm they might be causing despite good intentions. And so then we’re reframing what we know can work and we’re allowing ourselves to let go of what no longer serves us and what we know to be harmful to students.

So you asked about this relationship between art education, critical disability studies and special education. This is exactly where most of my work lives. So I think it’s helpful to talk a bit about the roots of special education, because this is the dominant paradigm in our schools. This is federal special education law that ensures our students have access to services and instructional supports. And these are the professionals who we collaborate with in service of student learning.

So it’s coming to this work with a foundational assumption that our students with disabilities need to be fixed, that they need to be remediated, that their disability is something that is separate from who they are, and that needs to be addressed because it’s causing functional impairments in the classroom. We know that special education operates in what is frequently called a compliance based framework.

And we also can’t just disavow special education because we disagree with its foundational assumptions. We have real kids who are caught up in our systems who benefit from these strategies who are entitled to these supports. We don’t get to just be, “No, thanks. I’m not going to do that.” So it is a mindset shift and it is also the practical work.

And I think really well employed adaptive tools are a great example of that. So this is something that has its roots in special education practice. It’s roots in the rehabilitative therapies. And giving students, in this example, let’s say a student with a fine motor disability, giving them grips that make their pencils accessible and their paint brushes accessible, giving them the ability to create independently in an art classroom, can be a really powerful equalizer. That comes from a rehabilitative remediation focus model. And yet when we employ a mindset that is not, my student needs to be fixed, and so I have this grip that makes them more normal, but rather I’m creating an art classroom in which I want to make sure all of my students have equal access to participation because that is important. When we’re coming at it with that value, that can be a really powerful anti-ableist tool.

Candido: Okay. So-

Jenna: That was a lot, I’m sorry.

Candido: It is a lot. But there’s a lot to learn here. There’s a lot to unpack and a lot for us to change, within ourselves, within our classroom. So if anybody is a regular listener to the podcast, they know that I am a practice over theory guy. So I want to jump into the action items: what can we do today to start making a difference? So I think a good place to start is probably adaptive tools. So for me, my immediate thought is I can just add these adaptive tools to my order. So that as soon as the school year begins, we can jump right into it. What would you say are some other things that teachers can do today to start making a difference inside of their classroom? In addition to the adaptive tools inside of a budget?

Jenna: Yeah. So that’s a great example. And I feel the need as someone who taught in systemically under-resourced schools for most of my career to beat the drum of adaptive tools can be low to no cost. I challenge my students every semester actually to make adaptive tools with things that they have lying around their house. And so on my Instagram account, there are highlight reels of handmade adaptive tools. And I will drop that, user username?

Candido: Yeah. It’s username.

Jenna: I feel about as old as it’s possible to feel actually, messing that one up.

Candido: Go ahead and share it now.

Jenna: It is @antiableist.art.ed. So I have highlight rules there that have some of those handmade adaptive tools. There are also some phenomenal free resources available on the special needs in art education, Facebook page and website. They’re an interest group from NAA, but anything from using some of your model magic clay to put around a mark making tool around a paintbrush and letting students grip it themselves so that you get that impression of what their grip is like. I’ve seen teachers use tennis balls, use milk cat and handles. There are so many free and cheap ways to make adaptive grip that can be every bit as effective as the ones that you buy online. And a whole bunch of other ways of approaching adaptive tools. I think about multiple ways of displaying information. So having visual schedules that are available for all of your students that include image support, so they know what to expect.

Having available fidget toys or stress balls, or noise canceling headphones, ways that students can moderate their sensory environment. These are all low cost, easy to implement practical tools. But as I said, this work is also mindset. And so I think there’s a way in which and it is the easier choice to make, to dive into those practical strategies without taking the time to have the uncomfortable internal reflections. And so I think there are some important action items that are related to that. So follow disabled activists and artists on social media, learn from them, listen to them, read what they have to say, read an article or a book written by a disabled author. There are great resources out there for all levels of like, you can dive into the super theoretical stuff. You can also look at Emily Lando, just had a book come out called Demystifying Disability, super accessible language, really great way of understanding what disability is. And learn about disability arts and deaf visual art.

Candido: Okay. I wasn’t kidding about the being a student part because we just received some homework and a major to-do list. Oh. But I think we should emphasize that we don’t need to throw away the entire systems that we have in place right now, there are things that we can strengthen in our practices. And then there are things that yeah, we could get rid of them, because really they just don’t work. Now onto social media. So there’s a large population of teachers who do use social media as a networking tool. And I’m wondering, what can we, as art teachers do to be more inclusive in the posts that we are creating such as maybe image descriptions?

Jenna: Yeah, absolutely. Some of the big ones are adding image descriptions into the comment or the body of your caption on social media. You can then go into your special settings in Instagram to add a alt text. Alt text and image descriptions are ways to expand access for folks who are blind or have low vision. So an alt text will actually show up for a screen reader user when they hover over the image, like narrate and describe. An image description is something that, even someone who’s not using a screen reader, but who has limited vision as they’re reading your caption can then read to know what they’re looking at.

Similarly, you want to add closed captions for any videos or audios that you have. And one of the ones that I think we don’t think about a lot are emojis. So we see a lot of people who put emojis in between sentences in their Instagram captions or some folks who use emojis in the middle of sentences. A screen reader, every time you get to that is going to read the entire apple description of what that emoji is. And so it’s going to interrupt the flow of a sentence. To be judicious with where we place those things, so that we’re thinking about what it does to understanding. And then I would also say particularly in Instagram being conscious about the length of our stories. So if we put a lot of text on a story slide, folks with limited fine motor movement are going to struggle to hold down so that they can actually read all of those things. So we want to be conscious about things like tech size and the demands of engaging with what we’re putting out there.

Candido: That’s perfect. All right Jenna. Future thinking.

Jenna: Yeah.

Candido: What are some hopes you have as far as the anti-ableist art room goes?

Jenna: For me, I hope for a future where we really are viewing all of these struggles through a much more collective lens. That an anti ableist art practice is inextricable from creating a space where our students feel loved and feel safe, where there are ways that we’re challenging hierarchies of individual excellence in service of more interdependence and collaboration in our classrooms. And I think that is, to the conversations we’ve had, that’s a mindset shift. That’s where it starts.

Candido: Jenna, thank you so much for sharing your time and your knowledge. I’m truly super excited to put these new lessons, these new ideas, this new knowledge to use this out in my classroom because my students, they deserve it.

Jenna: Thank you. It’s been an absolute joy to talk with you. And I don’t live only in the podcast world. So I dropped my Instagram handle earlier. Again, it’s @antiableist.art.ed. And even when I’m not posting much, I am there, I’m on the other side of it. And I’m happy to always be a resource for you or for your listeners.

Candido: Well, I have some work to do, and I think if you’re being honest, you do as well. The information Jenna shared has the possibility of making even the greatest of art teachers only greater. For more resources on the topic, check out Abby Schukei. Three ways to eliminate ableist language in the art room. And who else wants to better serve their students with special needs by Jessica Balsley. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.