02 February 2021

Art’s Ability to Lend a Voice to Those with Differing Abilities

Volunteers from VCUarts Qatar, WCM-Q, Sidra Medicine, and ATIC Dubai band together to provide first-of-its-kind program

Though not a direct allusion to those with differing abilities, renowned American artist Georgia O’ Keefe’s quote, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for”, perhaps best sums up art’s ability to give a voice to those who find it challenging to express themselves through words.

And, it is also this very attribute that inspired a first-of-its-kind program in Qatar where three alumni from VCUarts Qatar – Zenab Al-Khayat, Ayah Elnour, and Salma Awad – held supervised online workshops for those with Down’s Syndrome from the Qatar chapter of Best Buddies International.

The sessions – which took place over a six-week period in November-December 2020 – were part of a pilot program jointly conducted by volunteers from Qatar Foundation partner universities VCUarts Qatar and Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), Sidra Medicine, the Qatar chapter of Best Buddies International, and ATIC Psychological and Counselling Center (ATIC) in Dubai.

During the workshops – which were overseen by program volunteers from participating entities – Al-Khayat, Elnour and Awad guided the teenagers as they created watercolor paintings, collages, prints, and 3D artwork, using materials that were delivered to the students’ homes specifically for the purpose, from a local art supplier.

Prior to the workshops, the three VCUarts Qatar alumni were mentored by Dr. Alan S. Weber (Program Developer, and Professor of English, WCM-Q), Michelle Dixon (Group Facilitator, Professional Mentor for the program, and Art Therapist, Sidra Medicine), Sara Powell (Arts and Health Educator, Program Development; Founder of ATIC, Dubai, and VCUarts Qatar alumni) Natalie Carlier Gomez, (Professional Mentor/Supervisor, Program Development, ATIC, Dubai), Mariam El-Halawani (Arts and Health Educator, Program Development, ATIC, Dubai), and Rania Abou Ghaida (Program and Activities Researcher, Qatar chapter of Best Buddies).

Aysha Alkooheji (Program Administrator and Program Manager for Community & Continuing Education, VCUarts Qatar) and Asma Ul Hosna (Community & Continuing Education Coordinator, VCUarts Qatar) helped coordinate and organize the sessions between the VCUarts Qatar alumni and other volunteers.

During the mentoring phase Al-Khayat, Elnour and Awad familiarized themselves with the appropriate techniques, approaches and communication tactics that would help make the sessions both effective and enjoyable. They also discussed key issues of ethics and confidentiality essential to such engagement.

Mrs. Hanan Abdallah Tamimi, the parent of Nawaf Al Jaber, one of the participants, said she was pleased when she first heard of the online sessions from Abou Ghadia, at the Qatar chapter of Best Buddies International.

“I hope these workshops are repeated soon,” Mrs. Tamimi said. “That’s how much my son – and our entire family – enjoyed them. It was lovely to see my son blooming when he engaged with the VCUarts Qatar alumni; he felt that he was the star of the session, that his work was the focus of everyone’s attention. He particularly loved the process of mixing colors, manipulating the brushes, and deciding what to create.”

She added that such workshops would benefit all age groups with Down Syndrome, and not just young teenagers who were the target group for the pilot program.

“The workshops were well-organized and presented,” she noted. “It’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone into developing each session. For that reason, I do hope other age-groups get similar opportunities soon, as such activities allow them to express themselves through something they enjoy.”

For Awad, one of the VCUarts Qatar alumni, the experience proved to be an “eye-opener”.

“During quarantine, I spent time with my cousin who has Down’s Syndrome, where we would both do our artwork,” the VCUarts Qatar alumna said. “I was inspired by her enthusiasm and creativity. And so, when I heard of this opportunity, I immediately knew this was for me.”

Awad explained how Dr. Weber, Dixon and Powell first held a series of sessions for the VCUarts Qatar alumna – the community facilitators for the program – on how to interact with those with Down’s Syndrome, what to be aware of, and how to lead workshops for them. Following the mentoring sessions, the alumna prepared workshops for the students they were assigned to interact with, which were in turn presented to Dr. Weber, Dixon, Abou Ghaida, and the ATIC Dubai Art Therapists, for approval.

“This was my first experience learning from professional art therapists, and applying my art skills in a completely different field,” she said. “The sense of fulfillment and joy I got from it ran deep, so much so that after completing these workshops, I decided to join another workshop, called Creative Safe Space that again, combines art therapy with art education.”

Dr. Weber noted, "The program mentors and VCUarts Qatar community artists have clearly demonstrated that online art-therapy assisted community arts programs can be successful in boosting confidence, creativity, and socials skills in special needs children. The group plans to do research on this unique and possibly first-of-its-kind program in the GCC to understand how and why it was successful. Published research will assist other countries in the region in developing similar initiatives." 

Alkooheji, Program Administrator and Program Manager for Community & Continuing Education, VCUarts Qatar, said, “VCUarts Qatar's participation stems from our commitment to showcase the powerful role that art can play in community development. This specific pilot program was facilitated by field experts who volunteered their services to help enhance the skills of both the students from Best Buddies International, and the VCUarts Qatar alumni. This in turn, has contributed to the continuity and growth of the program, even after completion.”

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