SALT LAKE CITY — The arts have long been called the universal language, but according to Lisa Thornton, Tanner Dance advisory board member and parent of a disabled child, that language resonates on an even deeper level for the disabled.
“There’s something … almost spiritual that touches another part of their soul or something that the arts do that math doesn’t or that reading doesn’t,” Thornton said. “It reaches a part of them that these other avenues do not.”
In this second part of our three-story series "Ability Through the Arts," we examine how expression through the arts functions as a form of communication between the disabled and nondisabled. Natasha Hoffman, program assistant at TURN City Center for the Arts, sees the arts as a leveler.
“Normal tasks that other maybe nondisabled people can do that we just take for granted, they can’t really participate in, like driving or even walking, getting a job,” Hoffman said. “Pretty much anyone can make a line on a piece of paper, … and this is a place where that’s valuable and we can develop that and it means something.”
Thornton remembers one boy in a wheelchair who came to Tanner Dance who didn't speak much outside of class. But, she recalled, when the piano would start playing and the teachers started singing his name, his entire countance changed.
"He would squeal and laugh, and he didn’t do that anywhere else. It was like it just reached him in a way that nothing else seemed to reach him," Thornton said.
Lisa Eckersley, whose adult daughter Annie is a member of Elevate Theater Company, has seen this kind of reaction before. In fact, in addition to the obvious mood changes the arts can provide those with disabilities, she believes participation in arts is also a needed occupational therapy opportunity for disabled adults, helping them with things like physical therapy and overcoming tactile sensitivity.
“A lot of them don’t naturally have these abilities, so you come to a place like this and someone with cheerfulness and enthusiasm and kindness can elicit things from the kids that their parents (can’t),” Lisa Eckersley said.
Theater alone provides disabled adults with an opportunity to practice many important skills, according to Mary-Martha Ostler, director of the Tanner Dance program for adults with disabilities.
“You’re reading a script, you’re practicing reading skills. You’re saying lines, you’re practicing communication skills. You’re interacting with someone else, you’re practicing social skills,” Ostler explained.
Tanner Dance Director Mary Ann Lee said she finds teaching the disabled these fundamental skills through the arts is more effective than other teaching methods.
“When we work on academics with these kids too, that learning becomes incredibly deep because you’re using your cognitive abilities, the mind, you’re using your body, and your body’s having to respond and you’re having to understand that, and then you’re using your heart, your spirit,” Lee said.
Thornton said being able to do things that nondisabled people do helps disabled adults to develop self-confidence as they participate in the arts.
“I think for their self-esteem and for their excitement of life, … that just opens up all kinds of doors for them,” Thornton said.
For a population that sometimes isn’t given a lot of choices in life, participating in the arts gives disabled students the opportunity to choose how they want to complete a project, Lee said.
“There may be parameters about what you’re working on, what you’re writing creatively or what you’re working on in theater or what you’re working on in visual arts, but the way you accomplish that task is up to you,” Lee said. “It builds an incredible amount of self-esteem and self-efficacy in these students.”
The product of these programs, performing in front of a group, also helps to build students’ self-esteem, according to Lisa Eckersley.
“It gives them an opportunity to present themselves and be proud,” she said. “You always kind of wonder how it’s going to come out, and then when they actually are on the spot and it’s time to perform, it’s phenomenal.”
Art as a medium of self-expression also makes the risks of performing doable and gives students another language with which to communicate, according to Lee.
“Not all of these students really speak very much, and so it’s quite wonderful,” Lee said. “What we see is that when they’re singing and dancing, they are speaking and they’re singing at the top of their lungs. They’re amazing.”
For Elevate Theater Company member and LEADD Program participant Savannah Evans, being in these art programs and trying new things there makes her feel good about herself.
“I feel so proud of me that I can do anything with myself, my body,” Evans said.
Elevate Theater Company member Allie Moore said she was nervous before her first performance with the group, but her confidence has increased with time.
“It just gets easier,” Moore said. “My anxiety doesn’t bother me when I get used to it more, so it’s much better.”
This is consistent with other students who have more experience in the program, according to Ostler. She said those who were nervous for their first performance were the ones helping new students the following year.
“To look back and think about how they responded to the performance experience — their anxiety levels, the nerves, the pre-performance jitters — to last year when we performed, they were completely different actors and actresses,” Ostler said.
A needed social environment
Ostler said it’s also amazing as the students participate in the arts together to see friendships form that continue outside of class.
“There’s other places that they’re seeing each other, and now they’ve built a deeper camaraderie and a deeper friendship here,” Ostler said.
The sociality students experience in local arts programs is something they don’t get elsewhere, according to Thornton.
“They’re with people who are their peers and not their parents or not their caregivers,” Thornton said.
Lisa Eckersley said she has seen a great deal of progress in her daughter Annie, as well as in other students, as she has watched them participate in the arts through community programs.
“It strengthens their personalities and their self-confidence to be physically able and to have broader experience,” Lisa Eckersley said. “I know that they feel more articulate and are able to get out in the world.”