How to Facilitate Art Workshops for Special Needs Populations

May 5, 2024
Special Populations
Hiep Nguyen

         “Oh, don’t worry about asking him. He can’t really do anything,” my aunt replied, brushing off my suggestion to include my 92-year-old great uncle -- who was seated in his wheelchair in a dark corner, half asleep -- in our family painting session. But I insisted on wheeling him in to be a part of the process, even if he just made one circle.

         And then my great uncle woke up. He painted one circle, then another, and another. It was as if something inside him had been suddenly reignited and replenished. The more he painted, the more alive he became. Soon he was on his feet, to the astonishment of all the family members, moving around the painting. Half an hour later, after everyone else had stopped painting, he was still standing at the table, paintbrush in hand.

        This was the first time I witnessed how making art had the power to rekindle the spark of life in a person. Since that experience some 15 years ago, I have continued witnessing first hand the transformative power of collaborative artmaking. Every person can contribute to a project, even if they have limited abilities because of age, mental conditions, physical impairments, or other reasons.

         Like me, you may have a strong desire to work with people who have challenges and limitations. So how do you make it happen? What are some things you need to consider when working with special populations? Here are the things I have learned over the years.

6 things you need to know about making art with special needs populations. 

1. Know the Needs

       The first thing is know the specific needs of your group. Do they have limited mobility or physical ability? Do they have difficulty processing large amounts of information? Do they have aversion to loud environments? 

       Once you have that info, make the necessary accommodations in your facilitation practice. Get creative! Are you working with seniors who have limited fine motor control or use a wheelchair? Use foam stamps instead of paint brushes. Create adaptive tools from PVC pipe or wooden dowels to extend the reach of folks who are chair bound. You can come up with many different ways to help your workshop participants feel included and empowered. 

2. Collaborate to Create and Celebrate

        The saying “the more the merrier” has merit! By honoring the contributions of all participants, you embrace the idea that every person has worth and adds value to the group. This validation is very important, especially in populations that have otherwise been isolated or underserved.

        Another reason to collaborate is to connect groups of people and share experience and energy.  The energy that the teens bring to the workshop combined with the wisdom and patience that the elderly people possess makes for a beautiful partnership. Both groups benefit from one another and leave the experience richer than when they arrived.
I often show THIS VIDEO during my training session to show how collaborative art can be used to fight isolation for seniors

3. Keep it Simple

        Many people have difficulty taking in too much information all at once. My rule of thumb is to try and teach no more than 3 things in a single workshop. I also like to repeat instructions 3 times. Three really is a magic number. Also, be mindful of how fast you speak and how many steps you expect people to follow at once. 

4. Show, Don’t Tell

        The more you use visual aids, the better. When creating posters, use bold, easily readable fonts or handwriting. Bring large and small props that can be shown or touched. You might want to make cue cards or visual aid sheets to help people think of ideas.

        When I work with people with visual impairments, I like to bring items that can be used to help participants feel the roundness in order to see it in their mind’s eye. I have used everything from cucumbers to playground balls, hula hoops to small plates -- anything that is round or circular.

Tools & Techniques used by our Certified Teacher Cecilia in Hong Kong

5. Use Movement

        Movement is not only good for your participants, it’s fun too! The arts encompass a wide variety of media and modalities, so try to incorporate movement activities into your presentation or process. The goal is to create a warm, inclusive environment from the start.

        Be sure to cater your movement activities to your group. For instance, when working with seniors, I usually stick to warm-up exercises that can be done while sitting, like arm movements or foot tapping. For those with hearing impairments, I use big body movements so that everyone can see what I’m doing.  Again, keep it simple, fun, and easy to follow.

6. Recruit Assistants

        Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many centers and facilities have staff or volunteers available to help you. You might also consider recruiting your own volunteers or bringing extra staff, just make sure the facility will allow them access as well. As mentioned before, teens and young adults are great resources for volunteer helpers. Not only do they sometimes need the service hours, but their youth and strength are needed in certain situations. 

Art in a hospital setting

        Making art is good for everyone. If you are still unsure about how to work with special populations or would like to schedule an art workshop for your group, don’t hesitate to contact us. I firmly believe that each and every person can create art, and that artmaking can be an empowering and healing process. Circle Painting has extensive experience in organizing art events for special populations. Send us a message today to see how we can help your group create meaningful and beautiful collaborative art together.