Against the Odds
Art Education and Special Educational Needs

Bretton Hall College of the University of Leeds

April 96

Let me begin by briefly introducing the Richard Attenborough Centre. About 13 years ago Adult Education which the Centre is a part of, was running a number of studio based courses in Art. Students with disability and people with disabilities in Leicester and Leicestershire were saying "We'd like to participate in your courses but we don't know if we can cope within an adult education environment". It was realised; there was a need to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to work either in an integrated supported environment or segregated environment depending on their needs. In 1990 what was the Centre for Disability and the Arts became the Richard Attenborough Centre with Lord Attenborough giving his name to the project. As our chief patron Lord Attenborough takes a very active interest in the Centre. Then fundraising started for a new purpose-built, totally accessible Centre for the Arts on the University campus. This is currently under construction and should be finished and opened in January 1997. Our students are of all ages and come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have various types of disabilities. From partial sight through to total blindness, hearing impairment, psychiatric illness and some students with paralysis as a result maybe of stroke or tumours etc.

One of the reasons the Richard Attenborough Centre invited me to be their Artist-in-Residence, was owing to my visual impairment. It was felt that my very personal experiences could contribute to the activities of the Centre. In particular, their efforts to encourage visually impaired people to take up art and design courses in Higher and Further Education.

As Artist-in-Residence I have a lot of different roles. Presently I'm leading an adult education class at the University, 'Touch as a Way of Making Sculpture". My other teaching activities involve one-to-one work with students with disabilities and outreach projects at schools and colleges in Leicestershire, as well as speaking at conferences and seminars such as this to promote the activities of the Centre and my own work. In addition, I have just embarked on research for a publication profiling practising artists who have a visual impairment. Depending on funding, it is hoped to launch this publication with an exhibition of the artists' work. I'm also investigating how; the Centre can use the Internet and have recently gone online under the umbrella of the University of Leicester's Web Site. Like most Artists-in-Residence I have a commitment to my own work. My background is ceramics and as part of my residency I mounted a tactile installation called 'My Hands on You' at the University in June 1995. However, as my time with the Centre has advanced so my role has been extended in many different directions.

As this conference is about 'Art Education and Special Educational Needs', I am going to use my talk to examine issues that have arisen in my own art education. Having a visual impairment, I believe there are many issues beyond those of access that need to be addressed. This is especially true if education providers and visually impaired people themselves want art and design to make a significant contribution to their lives.

My visual impairment is as a consequence of maternal rubella, which resulted in bilateral congenital cataracts and nystagmus. The cataracts were removed when I was very young but left a certain amount of scarring. Nystagmus means that my eyes are always trying to focus correctly but can't. That doesn't mean everything is blurred, but rather the finer detail on everything is missing. So I can see everything without the fine detail. The only way to get to see things better, is to get close up. All this means that I don't see three-dimensionally because my vision isn't Bifocal.

I went through various types of schools in Ireland. A segregated primary school education for visually impaired boys. An integrated education at a boys secondary school and then went on to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.

At secondary school I followed the mainstream curriculum for state examinations. In terms of Art and Design this meant, you fulfil the criteria they give you the grade. If you need the grade to get into Art College, lets face it, that's what you do. There isn't an awful lot of time for experimenting in the current exam system. In Ireland the system is beginning to change, and here in the UK too. At a lower level there is much more project work and discussion.

I went to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin where I studied craft Design, majoring in ceramics. There were no support services whatsoever at the National College of Art and Design. So far I'm the third student I know of with a visual impairment who's graduated from that college. Really the numbers were too small, the whole student population was 650 students, although it was the largest art college in the Country, covering a whole range disciplines including Fine Art, Industrial Design, Art and Design teaching, Fashion and Textiles, Visual Communications and Craft Design. I began in 1989 and studied a Degree in Craft Design.

The Craft Design course I did, 80% was studio work and 20% was Art History and Complimentary studies. I failed my first Christmas assessment and for the next year and a half, almost two years, was on probation. When you are a student identified as having difficulties it is hard to get beyond that. During that time I was finding myself having to adapt. For example, when I went to NCAD I obviously was doing what I learned from school along the school structure. Lots of line drawing, working with design in a visual way, but when I got on to a third level art course I found that I just couldn't cope because the work was becoming finer.

The other thing was, I didn't know exactly what was wrong with my eyes. I did in technical/medical terms because I 'd been told. For example, I didn't know until I was 21 that I couldn't see three-dimensionally. Nobody had told me. I told my optician at a check-up after being fitted with contact lenses, I could see three-dimensionally. He said "It's not possible" and that was the first time I realised. That was a very big break through because, rather than working with line I started to move towards working more with charcoal and a putty rubber on coloured paper in a sculptural way. In this drawing I take coloured paper and cover it in layers and layers of charcoal and then start to rub back. So I'm not working in line any more but building up in masses and volumes and for me that was closer to my way of seeing and was a huge break-through.

It is quite easy to teach perspective, even to a visually impaired or totally blind person. If you want them to reproduce perspective in the way you have taught it, you can probably get them to do that too. To understand it, that is where the gap came for me. When I got into the more complex drawing and ways of thinking, I realised I didn't understand perspective at all. It didn't make sense for me. When I make line drawings, I'm doing it from what I have learned but as a way of drawing it doesn't suit me, it just doesn't work. The drawings essentially don't live. Whereas, the way I work with charcoal or with pastels, a material that you are building with on the paper is a way of working that makes a lot more sense.

Quite often it surprises people that my colour sense is very good but matching that to my design work or my ceramic work in particular was very difficult because the two seemed not to be running in parallel. This was another thing that I had to work through.

As a teacher you need to develop a language with your students so they will express how they do see and then you have to think of the possibilities that might suit them. Every student is going to be different. In fact my visual impairment when I'm teaching, is very little good to me as regards teaching visually impairment students. I doubt I have met one student who has exactly the same visual impairment as I have and certainly wouldn't have the same social background. Exposure to any environment is very important.

When I was applying for Art College I wanted to go there, become an artist and forget about my visual impairment. I think having come up through special schools and then gone into integrated education at secondary school level I did not want to do the things that were normally done by visually impaired people like physiotherapy, basket weaving, piano tuning etc. What I came to realise later was that there was nothing wrong with those jobs but personally I didn't want to do them and so I was thinking that if I can get away to Art College, it'll be OK then, it'll be all right. What I found was that that wasn't the case. A lot of the issues regarding my vision and how I saw had not been addressed at secondary school or primary school. So I had to find ways of addressing these issues at Art College with tutors and students. While very sympathetic and encouraging they did not know what to do. The only option they had was give me space so long as I was able to pass my assessment. I know this is a bleak picture but I believe that much can be learned from failure as well as success.

One of my tutors started to work on a smaller scale with me when I began failing my assessments. He reckoned if I worked smaller I could have more control of the clay and see it better. When in fact, the way I really needed to work was big and that took several months to find out. In fact it took the best part of a year to evolve to that point. Of course, during that period I was being assessed all the time. When you're being assessed and evolving at the same time, maybe just scraping through or you're failing an assessment, it can be fairly difficult to cope and to go through that process honestly.

In my drawing big breakthrough, was deciding to work with charcoal. In ceramics the first breakthrough was to work larger. Once I had got my hands on a technique that allowed me to work large and to any scale, I started wondering what was I going to put on this surface. One of the things I had always loved about clay since I was a child was handling the material. By coincidence, I was introduced to working with massage while I was doing some voluntary work in the physiotherapy department of a local hospital. I decided to try and adapt this as a way of making marks on the clay.

I did not accept touch or use it as a way of seeing and discuss it until I worked with massage. This came about by accident. While working in the physiotherapy department I assisted with an anti-natal class. In one particular session we were dealing with tummy and back massage. After the class I had a discussion with the physiotherapist, on what it felt like to feel somebody laugh and what movement felt like etc. The point I'm making is, it was an experience totally outside art that opened up touch to me. In that environment it was quite normal to discuss what it felt like to touch. From that experience, I had a language and a vocabulary I was able to work from. When I went back to college to begin my final year, I was still talking about touch. My experience had also given me a certain amount of confidence as well as a language that I was able to use in clay. With visually impaired and blind people, the language they use is essentially the visual language that everyone uses. Although they may use touch, it does not follow that this is turned into words, especially when the majority of people around them relate to their environment in a visual way.

As a result of my experience at Art College, I became very interested in how my eyesight worked and other visually impaired people who were involved with art. So I used my degree thesis as a way of exploring that whole issue. In particular I looked at work that was going on in Japan and Greece and also in the UK at the Royal College for the Blind in Hereford and Queen Alexandra College in Birmingham. In my thesis, I explored visual impairment, how people with a visual impairment were involved in art, what they were making and also how they appreciated art.

When I graduated from Art College in 1993 the first exhibition I was involved with was, Celebrating Difference. Its purpose was to celebrate difference as advantage rather than disadvantage. It was organised in Dublin by Very Special Arts Ireland at the City Art Centre in collaboration with the National Rehabilitation Board of Ireland. I put my way of using touch in ceramics forward as a difference that everybody could share. Being involved in the exhibition Celebrating Difference, was an opportunity that could not have happened at a better time. The exhibition travelled for a year and a half in Ireland. It started in September 1993 and it went on until January 1995 visiting 28 counties out of the 32 in Ireland. Celebrating Difference made a significant contribution in informing people of the positive role art and disability could have in stimulating debate. It was saying, here are people with disabilities who have something to say which is a different way of saying things, it is a different perspective that everyone can learn from.

I was very excited by what I had learned during my degree and how I could help other visually impaired people who were interested in studying art. I was hoping I could help others avoid some of the pitfalls I fallen into. I must admit finding that role was difficult. Then the Richard Attenborough Centre expressed an interest in having somebody come and work with them, who could bring their personal experience to their research and teaching, so that was an ideal position for me. The other thing that interested me was that touch could be used not just by visually impaired people but by everybody.

As Artist in Residence with the Richard Attenborough Centre I have been involved with a lot of outreach work. Including a project with Loughborough College of Art &Design where I did an introduction to touch with foundation students. None of this group had a visual impairment. That was really exciting because what we were looking at was showing them how they could use touch to extend their own work. They could find elements within an object by touch, which they wouldn't see if they just looked at the object. With art students, thinking and making in a conceptual way is fine. I found that keeping up with their pace of work was difficult as they were so excited by an alternative to working visually. We worked on a whole series of exercises, where I gave them objects which they drew in charcoal. We worked with fossils using blindfolds, music and sounds as well. In one exercise, I gave them a selection of fairly smooth stones, but when they drew them blindfold the details that they came up with were amazing. I then asked the students, if they had to choose these objects as things to draw, would they have picked them up? The reply was predictable. "No", because the stones wouldn't have looked interesting. The last exercise was one where they did their own thing - most of the students didn't want to use blindfolds. One student said that he could look at something and evaluate it visually and then close his eyes and run his hands along it and evaluate it by touch. In many ways this is how touch should work for all artists, but how often do we stop to evaluate objects in our environment by touch?

During my residency I built an installation 'My Hands on You'. I was quite restricted in the kiln that I had so I couldn't work with panels. Instead I worked with small individual pieces of clay. While held in my hands with a dowel going through to keep them hollow, I worked the massage marks onto the surface of the clay. When fired, the pieces were strung on lengths of rope and hung like a curtain. The idea was that you could walk around and inside the installation and all the pieces moved and jostled each other as they were touched. Children who came to see the exhibition were fascinated by the noise. A lot of people likened it to wind chimes. Quite often when I am working by touch I do close my eyes and try and cut off all the visual things.

I also had the opportunity to work with students at Babington Community School. A school in Leicestershire with about 890 students, 14 with a visual impairment. I worked with two of the support teachers and seven Year 8 and 9 students. Initially, it was expected that I would work on touch art projects. However, the students had very little experience of clay so we needed to spend most of the time working on skills. What they were interested in, was creating things they could compare with clay work being made by other students. Most important of all, was that work be visually recognisable. Others were just interested in building clay objects as big as possible. Therefore it was not possible to teach these students about touch until they were confident with the material. Six of the seven students I worked with at Babington used white canes. However, not all were totally blind. One girl never had sight, another had lost her sight at the age of 5 and a third was still loosing his sight. What I found was that none had a tactile vocabulary beyond that of the average fully sighted teenager. They had great difficulty describing things in a tactile way, although it was certain they used touch everyday.

One of the projects I am currently involved in is research for a publication profiling professional artists with a visual impairment. That's a very exciting project because we are not just looking at painters and sculptors, we're looking at designers, photographers, people involved in teaching and in theory. It's very interesting what they are saying as artists. The aim of the publication is to show that there is this dynamic range of people who work and function independently as artists who also happen to have a visual impairment.

I sometimes get criticised because I am very open about my level of sight, but to me it is very important to understand the way my vision works and also the way I can help other people understand there own vision and their other senses as well.

Visually impaired people often have very different reasons for becoming involved in art. One lady in my adult education class 'Touch as a Way of Making Sculpture' who has a visual impairment which is rapidly deteriorating. Was interested in finding a different way for her expression as opposed to writing.

Touch was something I learned intuitively. However, teaching touch is a very different thing. Nor does having a visual impairment give me a monopoly on teaching touch. When I started my degree studies in Craft Design I did not have a tactile vocabulary, the challenge was to create one. The future is to continue to evolve.

The concepts I have developed for my own touch sculpture I have had to simplify for teaching, so that other people can understand and then progress at their own speed and in their own way. Therefore, setting very clear objectives is important.

Touch for me is an alternative to seeing. It can be used alongside seeing, it is a way of observation that extends everybody's perception. Also touch can be an alternative way of abstracting forms and be an alternative way of understanding your environment. Touch for visually impaired people but in particular blind people is more significant than it is for the greater population. Obviously there are things you can't get to touch so you have to adapt, understanding space, understanding volumes, understanding things that are bigger than you are or bigger than your hands. This is something that schools could do a lot more on in the art class.

If you are dealing specifically with touch, concentrate on the skills, observation leading on to abstraction, just as you would do if you were dealing in any other area of art, as I did as a design student. You must listen to what students have to say, understanding their visual impairment. A person with a visual impairment does not necessarily recognise their own needs as they are growing up because they may not have matured enough. There must be a dialogue going on the whole time. If you are a teacher who has never worked with visually impaired people before, you must talk to them and find out what they need, they might tell you what they don't want or what they like or what they can't do. You must be careful to distinguish between lack of skill and lack of vision, sometimes the two are confused. It is not true that because a person is visually impaired they are not going to have or develop the skills or certain materials are inappropriate.

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