This column hopes to share stories of inclusion that schools, educators and children have practised successfully. The stories hope to inspire and convince more schools that an inclusive education is not only possible but also imperative to build a sensitive and empathetic world around us.
My training as an arts-based therapist taught me that a distressed mind or body takes more time to heal so the primary objective of therapy should be to take the individual through experiences that bring them joy. I had experienced the impact of this approach on several children, especially abandoned children who found it difficult to trust, but began to grow bonds with their counsellors after this approach was taken.
My work with special needs children began quite serendipitously and not knowing the difference between Mental Retardation, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and several other conditions when I first began, gave me the freedom to imagine an arts-based approach that focused on experiences and not solely on needs. The usual process of any intervention is to diagnose what the limitations are, and the approach is to strengthen those areas through various therapeutic sessions, so capacities are increased.
However, the approach I talk about here is an overall experience that is pleasurable and in that joyous setting, introduce therapeutic objectives that build capacities and help overcome limitations. An anecdote here may help to illustrate this better.
When I first began art sessions with children of varying intellectual and physical disabilities, it struck me that many children could neither hold crayons nor the largest paint brushes that were available. Their grip was either too rigid or too sloppy and developing their motor skills was a need and thus a primary objective of most sessions. Here, even art was conducted through this task-based approach. The crayon/brush was held along with the child’s hand and over time the support was reduced in the hope that the degree of dependence also reduces. I really wanted to move away from this.
We use this approach even today. However, it’s great to use it while learning a specific skill like hand-eye coordination or motor functions, but not when doing art. The primary objective of any arts-based approach is for it to be an experience, rouse an expression and bring about joy.
So, we decided to try something new. Chart paper was stuck on the walls of the corridor and buckets of liquid paint were brought in along with toilet cleaning brushes! Slightly erratic but it worked wonders! It didn’t matter whether the child was able to hold a crayon or a large brush or neither – they all let themselves loose on those walls. There was dabbing, slapping, rubbing, and scrubbing as paint splattered across the corridor. Children on wheelchairs were spun around and wheeled across the wall with toilet brushes attached to the handles adding their bit to the colourful mural in the making. There was music, there was movement, there was colour and a whole lot of giggles. It didn’t matter if the child had ASD, MR or CP, they were all part of the activity in some or other capacity.
Were therapeutic objectives met? The answer is most definitely in the affirmative. Motor skills, both fine and gross were being exercised, personal expression was seen when children chose their preferred colours, there was much more independent work happening because there was enthusiasm to participate, and they were not doing the activity just to complete it.
So how do we move away from an approach where one’s limitations become the objective of our work with them? How do we invite more arts-based approaches that allow us the freedom to imagine possibilities beyond the ‘can and cannot’? I believe that the answer lies in asking the right questions.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to experience this when a 12-year-old girl pushed me to ask the right questions to be able to understand her better. Let’s call her Tara, and you’ll soon know why! Tara was a perfectionist who always coloured within the lines. However, the only colour she ever used was black. The walls of her classroom were pasted with colourful images of frogs and umbrellas and flowers and rangolis, and there was always one image that was distinctly Tara’s.
Tara never showed interest in her work when it was put up on the wall. Surely, she was aware that her artwork stood out from all the others. Was she glad that it did? Or did she feel isolated because of it? We couldn’t tell because Tara had no facial or verbal expression. This was one of the primary objectives that was being addressed through various interventions.
How could we get Tara to express herself? There had to be a way through the medium of art and arts-based experiences that this could have been achieved. After all, the existence of art is to entice expression! Appreciation of her work didn’t matter to her. Placing her work in the centre of the art wall had no impact on her either. Using various mediums, art tools, textures, music, movement – she showed no preference for one over the other. All she cared about was for her work to be perfect, and it had to be in black.
That was it! That was the one thing that Tara cared about, and we had to focus on just that. The questions that mattered began to emerge. Was there a way to let Tara know that her perfection could be celebrated? That her obsession with black could be shared and enjoyed by her peers as well? Could Tara take pride in her perfectly coloured work? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way for her to express herself?
We came up with a plan. We were going to have an entire week of celebrating SPACE! While teachers would talk about stars, planets and rotations, the art room would have a big surprise. We were going to create an artistic resemblance of the starlit Space using a variety of geometric shapes. And we needed a lot of black!
We laid out a variety of mediums – paints, crayons, markers, powders, sparkles, paper balls, tiny bits of paper, charcoal – all in black. The canvas had a variety of geometric shapes and children could choose which medium they used for which shape. Children from all classes joined in throughout the week, taking turns to be part of this celebration. Tara didn’t move out of the art room that week. On the last day, while Tara didn’t show any visible change in expression, for the very first time, she stayed back till the end of the day to help put up the large canvas onto the art wall. We all knew that Tara had found her sparkle that day.
Isn’t this reason enough for us to, every now and then, draw a blank slate, drop the labels, and open a new window to look at the same children but from a new perspective? Like Tara, maybe some of our children can teach us newer ways of expression that’s not on our list. Let’s begin with asking different questions. Let’s enjoy the freedom of knowing that there are possibilities out there that are waiting to be explored.
The author is an arts-based therapist, educator and children’s author. She has been working with children from different backgrounds for the past 15 years and is an advocate of ‘inclusive education’.She is currently the Executive Director of an inclusive not-for-profit ICSE school in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.