The word “disability” may feel uncomfortable to use, let alone teach about, in the art room! What if I don’t say the right thing? What if I don’t know enough information about it? What if it singles students out and makes them uneasy? There can be many “what ifs,” and that’s okay! It’s good to ask questions because it signifies curiosity and can identify an area to grow in. Let’s stretch ourselves and our art curriculums and explore what it can look like to integrate artists with disabilities and why it matters.
What are the benefits of integrating artists with disabilities into your curriculum?
Before diving into this question, let’s establish what a disability is and some other baseline terms. This will allow us to move forward on the same page.
Understanding the principle of windows and mirrors can be helpful when considering the benefits of integrating artists with disabilities. Although this refers to stories, the same can be applied to artwork. After all, artworks are visual stories. People see the outside world through a window. If we use art as a window, we can use it to expose students to history, new perspectives, and experiences. Mirrors let us look at ourselves. Artwork can reflect our students’ complex identities. When it does, it can empower students and “build connection and a sense of belonging.”
Include artists with disabilities if and when it fits within your existing lesson plans. There is no need to make a big deal out of it or draw special attention to the artist. Introduce them just like you would anyone else.
Just like with any other artist, if you like an artist’s work, hang it on your wall! Seeing it on your wall every day may remind you to reference that artist more often. Making work easily accessible will also inspire your students as they make artistic choices daily. It is also a way to reflect broader ideas of what is “normal” and acceptable.
3. Consider the language you use.
Words have power and can shape how we see the world. Remove ableist language to better frame conversations. Ableist language assumes a person with a disability is of lesser value. For specific examples of how to eliminate ableist language, read this article.
All artists, disability or no disability, use their life and experiences to inform their artwork. Disability is a valuable part of life and experiences. Many students do not have the life experience or insight to make connections on their own. As teachers facilitating learning, we need to explicitly mention an artist’s disability so students can make clear connections.
If you are nervous about discussing disability in front of your students, take a small step by reading a children’s book. This is a low-pressure way to introduce disabilities and what they can look like with fictional characters. This is also a “scripted way” to bring a topic you are unfamiliar with into your classroom.
Other artists already in your curriculum may include:
Get started with these seven artists with disabilities.
Note: Peruse the links below to determine if they’re appropriate to share with your students.
Below is a list of seven artists with disabilities, some of whom make Disability Art. This is a great list to get you started if you want to incorporate artists who are currently practicing and exhibiting.
Incorporating artists with disabilities is similar to how you would approach exposing your students to any other window of human diversity. It is worth the extra effort and temporary discomfort to ask questions and learn alongside your students. The payoff can be rewarding! Student engagement and curiosity levels can increase, and students will cultivate empathy and build connections. We hope the tips and artists above equip you to become a more reflective art educator and get started with a more inclusive art curriculum!
If you want to explore more, here are resources to find additional artists with disabilities:
Who is your favorite artist with a disability to share with your students?
What tips do you have for integrating artists with disabilities into the curriculum?