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Art For All lets students with differing abilities participate in art projects

For students with extensive support needs, participating in school art projects has historically been difficult. Some students maybe didn’t have the physical ability to paint or draw, and others need modifications to understand instructions.

“We have a good group of kids who are in complex bodies, so they are often the ones who end up being observers during art class, or projects are just done for them while they watch,” said occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist Mary Elliott.

But a new program that launched this spring at Cascadia Elementary School, Art For All, is allowing students of all abilities to fully take ownership of their art projects through unique technology and tools that are customized for each student’s individual needs.

“This program gives children an opportunity to express themselves through art,” said occupational therapist Galit Shilo. “It provides them the option to choose the colors they want, and it provides great fine motor skills and coordination for making the shapes and the design that they want.”

Art For All is funded through local nonprofit Allied Arts of Whatcom County, and 27 students at Cascadia participated this school year. The program helps children with differing abilities practice problem-solving, social skills, and communication. And of course, as many kids will tell you while making an art project – it’s fun!

Liam, a fourth grader at Cascadia, is mostly non-speaking and has difficulty gripping objects, like a paintbrush. He uses assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to communicate and participate in his learning. Cascadia staff set up a painting station for him that allows him to make choices in what he wants his art project to look like by using his unique abilities. His mobility chair has two voice output buttons attached to his headrest, which he presses with his head to say “yes” or “no”. Additionally, speech-language pathologist Debbie Wilcox attached a mechanical arm to the table with a cup of paint on one end and switch on the other.

Liam used the “yes” and “no” voice output buttons to tell Wilcox which paint colors he wanted, and after Wilcox poured that paint into the cup, he used the switch to slowly pour it onto the canvas. A black posterboard was placed behind the mechanical arm and the canvas, so Liam could better focus on his artwork.

At first, Liam struggled to figure out the system, and Wilcox reassured him.

“I know this is new, but you’re going to do great,” she said, gently.

After a couple attempts, Liam mastered the switch system, and the paint poured onto the canvas as a smile spread across his face.

“Look, it’s pouring! You’re doing that with your hand,” Wilcox exclaimed.

Other students use high-tech AAC systems such as an iPad with a speech generating program to help communicate how they’d like their art to look. The AAC device allows non or minimally speaking students to find their voice by selecting picture icons to build a sentence, which the iPad then speaks out loud. To sign their art, some students use an “alternative pencil,” where they use “yes” and “no” buttons to tell the school staff member which letters they’d like to use.

A couple students worked with speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists to decide which colors to use on their canvas. They then poured those colors, one at a time, into a small funnel pressed against the white canvas, which made the paint pop out into blooming, 1960s-style patterns.

With the help of staff, the students then slowly tilted their paint canvases or spun them using a turntable-style device. The end result is gorgeous – like psychedelic Mark Rothko.

“Wow, this looks rad!” said second grader Emerson. “I guess I’m an artist now, this should go into a museum.”

Life skills teacher Kirsten Cox asked fourth grader Rafael if he wanted to make another painting after he finished. He beamed and said “one more!” Cox high-fived him and said, “Way to tell me you want to do another one!”

On August 3, at the Ferndale Block Party, there will be a showcase of student art from the Art For All program. The student art will be auctioned off, with all proceeds going towards more art equipment. Although the program was only at Cascadia this school year, Shilo said she hopes it can expand to other elementary schools in the near future.

“The kids love it,” she said. “They’re very excited to do it, they feel creative.”