Assessing the Creative Work of People with Disabilities

By Emily Chase

I am excited to introduce the author of this blog, she is Emily Chase and I am jealous of her job title: Manager of Creative Experiences. With this title she makes strong use of her training in psychology, visual art, and special education as well as her experience with community and school based arts programming. She works at Peckham, a vocational rehabilitation non-profit organization and a MAEIA partner. At Peckham Emily oversees the Art From the Heart program, intended to increase access to the creative arts for people with disabilities and to eliminate barriers for their participation in the larger arts community. I find her blog to be insightful, humorous, and thought provoking. Also, Peckham artist Marcus Pemberton shares his unique paintings. Enjoy!                                                                        ~ Joni Starr, MAEIA Blog Editor


I read recently that many art teachers feel unprepared to instruct, accommodate, and assess students with significant disabilities (1). And boy, do I understand that.  Although my career has focused on teaching visual art to people with disabilities, I do not have it all figured out.

In particular, the assessment of the creative work of kids and adults with disabilities has been a serious struggle for me throughout my career.   For a long time, this struggle grew from a vague feeling, an intuition that suggested that my assessment—my judgment—of my students’ work was somehow unjust.  A sense that, as the instructor, I was assumed to be the expert, but that this “expertise” of how to engage with concepts, tools, materials and processes was founded in neurotypical and typically-abled theories and ideas of art and education.  How was it OK for me, through my typically-abled lens, to imply that I knew how my students’ creative acts and products needed to be altered or improved?

I have struggled with this question for at least 13 years.  I was originally drawn towards art education because the arts have the potential, more than any other subject, to empower, enliven, celebrate difference, and offer opportunity for authentic expression that accurately reflects our unique lived experiences.  When we view the arts this way, I think most of us would agree that the delivery of quality arts education to all students is important, but that for students with disabilities, it is crucial.  So, what could I say to Jayden, my student that wanted to paint 25 pieces of paper blue?  Or to Luis, who wanted to rip paper up and glue it into a tower?  Or to Angel, who wanted to tie different colors of yarn onto the fan and sing telenovela songs into it? Every. Single. Class? What I said was . . . go for it! They were engaged, they were focused, they were excited. Isn’t that what a creative practice looks like? It goes without saying that this is not a generally accepted way to run a middle school art class, nor did it lend itself to the assessment that I should have been implementing!  While I wholeheartedly recognized the role assessment plays in every human’s journey of learning, skill acquisition, and personal growth, I just couldn’t marry that to the sacred act of self-expression that is artmaking.

So, I left formal education. I found my way into community-based art, working with people who were homeless, at-risk youth, and young survivors of sexual abuse.  Eventually I made it to Peckham where I manage art programming for people with disabilities, and where we recently recrafted our Art From the Heart program mission statement to describe us as “a non-judgmental, supportive space in which artists have the freedom to pursue their creative practice at their own pace.”  Thanks to my Peckham community, I learned about Critical Disability Studies (CDS), and I finally discovered the language for what I had been sensing for so many years.  A central tenant of CDS asserts that we live in a disabling society, one that stigmatizes particular individuals, one that creates “hostile cultural, social, and environmental barriers” that keeps these individuals from full inclusion in society (2). I realized I had been thinking of assessment as a way of reinforcing an ableist norm, a tool that would define my student’s work as limited by impairment, instead of the way we define other artist’s work—as the thoughtful output of their innate creative drive.

So, story over, right? Nope. In the back of my head, my educator voice continues whispering, “Your artists deserve the absolute best creative experiences you can deliver, and to do that, you need assessment! You can’t improve professionally without it; you can’t tailor your facilitation without it; you can’t offer responsive programming without it; and you can’t really know your artists without it!” I hadn’t quite given up on assessment, and I knew it could help Peckham’s creative programming flourish, but I had no idea how to move forward.

I was in this headspace when Barb Whitney and Heather Vaughan-Southard invited me to the MAEIA partner table. As I settled into the MAEIA community, Heather said something that finally moved me forward through my 13-year quandary, something along the lines of: Assessment can be defined by the individual. Each artist can choose how they want to assess their art, how they want to evaluate themselves. You could just walk alongside them.
Mind. Blown.

Ah- ha! Assessment as a tool that could structure self-determination, not as a tool to impose adherence to some set of external expectations.  Assessment that functions to allow an individual to be in charge of and define their own creative choices. That is empowering assessment, that is authentic assessment. That is assessment that I just might be able to get behind.

(1): E. Stephanie Cramer, Mari Beth Coleman, Yujeong Park, Sherry Mee Bell & Jeremy T. Coles (2015) Art Educators’ Knowledge and Preparedness for Teaching Students with Physical, Visual, Severe, and Multiple Disabilities, Studies in Art Education, 57:1, 6-20, DOI: 10.1080/00393541.2015.11666279 To link to this article:

(2) Helen Knutes Nyqvist & Marie-Louise Stjerna (2017) Artistry and disability – Doing art for real? Affordances at a day activity centre with an artistic profile, Disability & Society, 32:7, 966-985, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2017.1337563

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