Thursday, September 22, 2016

Wings of Color: Magic Happens at Moody Gardens

It’s a beautiful day at Moody Gardens here in Galveston, Texas, the site of our 5th Annual Art in the Gardens festival sponsored by VSA Texas and Moody Gardens. This free event for schools gives students with disabilities an opportunity to show off their creative side through interactive art stations. This year’s theme is "Wings of Color" and we have over 15 local art groups and 4 performance groups providing activities and entertainment for these kids.

Well we better start getting busy setting up. The schools, performers, and art groups will be arriving soon, and we got a big fun-filled event to put on!

We have an adhesive foam butterflies activity provided by The Galveston Art League:
The Galveston Art League table covered in clipboards and butterfly outlines 
A bin of brightly colored foam stars and other shapes
Making animal face masks with Tide Way. Got those creative juices flowing!
Coloring and cutting out various animal face masks
Hey, I see some dancing going on by the Down Syndrome Association Pantomime Dancers.  Fabulous costumes! The kids are loving this.
Pantomime dancers donning circus costumes
Another pantomime dancer in a colorful tutu carefully walking an imaginary tightrope
More pantomime dancers, this time dressed as cars
Oh my gosh, it’s a Penguin Mascot from Ryan's RazzMaTazz! Maybe I can get his autograph, see what kind of fish he likes and if he has a girlfriend.
The penguin mascot greeting one of the kids
Where are all these bubbles coming from? Why it’s from VSA Texas' own bubble making machine attached to this wheelchair. Bubbles everywhere!!
The wheelchair bubble maker attachment blowing bubbles in all directions
More bubbles!
A big shout out to all the volunteers provided by Moody Gardens that are working hard to make this such a special day for all the kids!
Someone dressed up as a bright blue and yellow bird. A penguin admirer? 
Ah, I think it’s lunchtime now for us as well as the kids, but I don’t know, they are loving this live music provided by School of Rock. Look at some of these kids' moves. They know how to rock!
A student grooving to School of Rock with the help of a teacher
Well, it seems like we just got started and now it’s pack up time and thank you's to do for all our great participants. We saw many creative expressions on this year’s theme “Wings of Color.” The kids are off now to see the Rainforest Pyramid compliments of Moody Gardens. This event has been a delight every year and the art community always pulls together to donate their time and creativity in making this event so special for the kids and their families and teachers. Galveston is such a welcoming and beautiful city here on the waters behind Moody Gardens, so magical.
The VSA team behind the magic: Janelle, April, and Lynn
See ya next year!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Call Me Disabled, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word

I first heard about the movement to do away with the word "disability" ten years ago from a peer in California. His problem was with the prefix "-dis" which according to most dictionaries means some version of "a negative or reversing force." I don't quite remember what he had in mind to replace  "disability" with – it might have been "differently-abled," "uniquely-able," "special needs," or even just "ability" – but I remember being supportive, nodding in agreement, and wishing him luck in that struggle. After all I was eighteen, fresh out of the Youth Leadership Forum, and filled with tremendous pride in this community of which I was a part. So if my disabled friend wanted to get rid of the word "disabled," I thought more power to him! But I also remember thinking as time went on, "Is that really the most important issue affecting people with disabilities? What about attendant care? What about people still locked away in institutions? What about accommodations in school?"

Several recent experiences, culminating with the non-disabled host of a radio program about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) devoting airtime to articulate why we should replace the word, have brought the issue back to mind, and I have come to believe that the words we use to describe ourselves are more important than ever, only I believe we instead need to embrace the word "disability" and discard the others. Here's why:

First off, I adhere to the social model of disability, which means that I am not disabled by Muscular Dystrophy but by the society that refuses to include me. In this way, my actual "disabilities" are stairs, heavy doors that don't open automatically, unlivable personal care attendant wages, the lack of affordable, accessible housing, the cost-cutting practices of insurance companies and government agencies. This list is by no means exhaustive, but the idea here is that if these problems did not persist in my life, I would not feel "disabled," and I honestly wouldn't even think of myself as "disabled." And if we do away with the word disability in favor of a soft alternative with an opposite meaning, we may risk losing this social perspective which is at the core of the disability rights movement.
 Holding my hands up in terror as I sit in the shadows before a steep staircase.
I think the stairs are the real problem here.
Disability is more than just a word. It encapsulates a movement, a culture, and a source of pride for the millions of us worldwide who identify as members of the disability community. When I hear the word disability, I feel good because it refers to my brothers and sisters and some of my greatest role models and friends. Taking ownership of the word – and the identity – is akin to showing solidarity with the community and helping to preserve its history and culture. Moreover, proudly using the term, rather than skirting around it, actually strengthens the community, validates its experience, and shows people without disabilities that a disability is not some terrible, scary, or shameful thing. Disability is a fact of life that nearly everyone will experience at some point in their lives, so it benefits everyone when we make the world a more accessible and inclusive place.
On my first ADAPT action. Disabled and proud!
But isn't the word disability necessarily negative? In short, no. I don't believe disabilities are viewed negatively because they're called disabilities; they are viewed negatively because they have been represented that way and thought of in that way for as long as we can remember, and everything from books and TV shows to movies and other media reinforce that perception. If we simply change the word, the ableist structures that oppress us will persist, especially if we distance ourselves from the label of disability at the prodding of those without disabilities. We need to attack ableism at its core, and we do that by shouting "disabled and proud!"
A blast from the past: long-haired,
18-year-old me and stranger dog checking
out the accessible entrance.
Of course this is only one disabled guy's opinion. Ultimately I believe each individual should determine how they personally want to identify – be it "unique ability," "disability," person first, identity first, or not at all – as long as they have complete autonomy to do so. But if you call me anything, please call me disabled.

Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below, or explore the various perspectives on this complex issue by reading these other articles:

Thursday, September 8, 2016

For All The Writers Out There!

Originally posted July 28, 2016 at Reposted with permission.

Stop Looking for Something to Be Wrong!

Sit DOWN, and Write!

AND Look for What’s Right in Your Life.

Because there is more right than wrong, isn’t there?

My name is usually Nicole Cortichiato, but sometimes I use my pen name, Nia Spaghetti. I’m also a person with a disability and a writer. I am going to talk to you about getting YOUR stories out there and my writing process.

What have I written? Fiction, flash fiction, memoir, children’s books (below), plays, and poetry.
The cover of my first children's book, "The Independent Hand"

Where have I been published?
  • Austin Rio Review
  • Pen to Paper Contest (2nd place)
  • Badgerdog (Public library writing program)
  • Imagine Art Artist Retreat (Directed and wrote two short plays)
  • Helped write for TILT Performance Group’s production of “Free Patterns”
  • And I’ve self published

My writing process
  • I like to write in the morning, always with plenty of coffee and some breakfast.
  • I didn’t start writing seriously until 2011. By serious I mean actually finishing my stories and doing something with them. Before then, I just journaled a lot.
A tiny plate of eggs and bacon in the palm of my hand

This is how I make it happen:

1. I take creative writing classes at Austin Community College! I swear by this! Favorite teachers: Sidney Brammer and Charlotte Gullick. Why take classes?
  • Because you get to learn new things, see your growth, and because there are assignments, readings, and deadlines.
  • You can take as many classes as you like, you can even take the same class more than once.
  • You always have to hand in a portfolio of your work at the end of the semester. Yeah! Finished pieces!
  • It is required for you to submit your pieces to literary magazines. This is good exercise for any writer.
  • You can also take these classes online. Woohoo! Trust me, it’s easy to learn.

          2. I attend writing and storytelling events!
          • Open mics: These are crucial if you’re a writer. Listen, learn, then participate. Reading your work out loud is super helpful.
          • Storytelling events: Bookstores like Bookpeople, Malvern Books, or BookWoman have regular author events. The Writers League of Texas is another place to learn, and you can volunteer there too.
          Reading at the Lion and Pirate Open Mic

          3. I joined a writing group where we critique each other’s stories.
          • Make sure before you join a writing group, you familiarize yourself with the art and rules of critiquing someone’s work. Bottom line: you want to encourage someone, not crush their dreams. For example, say what worked in a piece instead of what you hated.

          4. I meditate before I write!
          • I believe we have to own what we put out in the world so I seriously think about what I want my writing to do for people. How do I want them to feel or grow? I meditate at least 10 minutes before I write.

          That’s it folks! Now, what’s write with you today?

          Thursday, September 1, 2016

          Hooray for Arts in Context: Body Shift!

          We are so excited! Austin-based KLRU TV announced that Eve Tarlo and her production team members Anna Ramirez and Christopher Kim have been nominated for a 2016 Lone Star Emmy Award in the Human Interest category. The Lone Start Emmys are awarded by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Lone Star Chapter. They are the standard-bearers for excellence in the television broadcasting industry and the gatekeepers of the prestigious regional EMMY Awards in Texas. Lone Star EMMY represents the most experienced and talented television professionals from all disciplines of the industry and from all of Texas’ 19 television markets.

          We wish Eve and her team the very best of luck in winning this award. We will hold our collective breath until the October ceremony! Until then, check out this beautiful video of Silva Laukkanen and the ECHO dancers as they prepare for their site-specific performance in September 2015.

          Thank you to everyone who helps to make this program possible: IMPACT Austin, Texas Commission on the Arts, City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, Keating Family Foundation, Rosedale Foundation, AISD Fine Arts and Creative Learning Initiative, Forklift Danceworks, the VSA Texas Board of Directors, Olivia O’Hare, and all our individual supporters. Body Shift thanks you from the bottom of our beating hearts.

          To donate in support of the work of VSA Texas and Body Shift, please click here.

          Thursday, August 25, 2016

          Why You Should Fund the Arts

          Art is one of the most important things about being alive and yet, it remains a distant 4th place priority in most education systems. Not everyone is an artist, but then again not everyone is a scientist or mathematician.  The world would be a very boring place if we were all so well-rounded.

          In my personal experience, I have found that art is something so intrinsic to my happiness and ability to express myself that imagining life without it seems impossible. I’ve been lucky enough to make a little money from my chosen form of expression - photography. One of the things I’ve learned since I started working at VSA Texas is that no matter what age, ability or income bracket you fall in, art is a viable career option.
          Photo I took of my son at the beach in Costa Rica a few years ago
          My son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 3 years old. He did not start speaking clearly until he was 4, but ever since I can remember, he built things, he drew things, he sang, he danced. He did so many things to express himself before a full sentence came out of his mouth and I know that without art, he would have not been able to show me exactly who he was and what was on his mind.
          Photo of bathtime art my son made when he was just learning to speak
          Sadly, art hasn’t been a high priority in education for a long time. What if we spent as much time encouraging creativity as we did teaching students how to pass standardized tests? What if we allowed children to draw all over their homework, or better yet, draw the answers to their homework? The ‘what if’s’ could go on forever, but why not try focusing more on what we know works for students and make real change?

          This is why it is so important to fund the arts. When you send a young person to one of our internships or camps, our dance class, our writing workshops, you are not giving someone the gift of passing their time. You are giving them the gift of an opportunity to do something that would have otherwise been impossible. You give them the gift of a new career path. You make art a priority.
          Photo of my son and I at our house last year
          At VSA Texas, our mission is to create an arts-inspired community that welcomes all abilities. Contributing to the creation of new artists will always be something worthwhile. 

          To support the diverse, arts-inspired programming of VSA Texas, please click here to donate. Every little bit counts!

          Thursday, August 18, 2016

          Creative Veterans Unite!

          Coming up at the end of this month is an event celebrating our first exploration of adding Veteran Writers to our Distinguished Artist Veterans program. As those of you who have followed our veterans program knows, we have been hosting an annual exhibition of visual art every year since 2009. The exhibit is always a juried call for art, and brings us new and exciting artwork by veterans from all over the state of Texas. We have featured sculptures, paintings, drawings, jewelry, and so much more. But never writing until now! Our new project is called The Re-Integration Project and we started by hosting some writing classes for veterans in the Central Texas area. Over the course of two six-week long classes, a total of ten men and women learned about different writing styles including poetry, personal narrative, screenwriting, and fiction. The classes were taught by local writers Stephanie Whallon and Cecily Sailer. We also had an assistant from the Military Veteran Peer Network who helped us while also writing his own work. Below is a short excerpt from Gene Hooper’s story “S-13: A Day at Sea”

          Nick wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew that rumors onboard a ship travel fast. And he knew that if he wanted answers, he needed to move to his next watch station on the bridge. Maybe there is something to all of it, he thought, and he raced through the ship to the bridge.
          When Nick entered the bridge, things were calm, so he reported to the officer of watch. Nick announced his presence with a strong deep tone. “Officer of the watch, Seaman Stone, reporting for duty. Permission to relieve the helmsman.” 
          “Permission granted,” Lieutenant McDaniel responded. The deck watch was always uptight and very formal. Traditions, professionalism, and commutations were key components to keeping a ship out of harm’s way out at sea.
          Nick took his place at the helm. The bridge was too quiet, the kind of quiet that speaks loudly. He felt as though everyone knew something but was afraid to tell him. He wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but he already didn’t like it.

          Gene Hooper writes fiction informed by his experiences as a veteran and his naval expertise. “S-13” is his first story, which sheds light on some of his core values. Being new to writing, Gene has spent time with great educators through VSA Texas’ veteran writing projects and learned new writing skills. He will continue writing and building his skill set. Gene also works with veterans with PTSD. He believes in the healing power of writing, and believes it can provide encouragement. Gene’s full story can be found in the chapbook that is being printed for the reading and art exhibit coming up on August 31st. We are partnering with the Aural Literature program of the Austin Public Library and featuring a reading of literary works by our veteran writers as well as displaying artwork by veteran artists from all over the state in our 7th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans exhibit.
          © 2016 Alec Carvalho, Wave in Birch, carved wood, 12” x 12”
          We will have work on exhibit by 11 artists from all across the state including Laredo, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. We asked the artists to relate their work to a theme that corresponded to the writings we received. For example, Alec’s piece Wave in Birch relates to the theme of Ownership of Experience and Life Choices.

          Another artist who relates to that theme of Ownership of Experience is Ruth McIntosh. Ruth combined art and writing in her entry by framing a poem that is embedded into handmade paper created from the pulp of her old military uniforms. Her piece is called PTSD and she noticed something interesting about her finished work:

          “I randomly tore the edges of the paper on which the poem is printed, however, unknowingly I created the outline of a face. The lines of the printing also just happened to suggest a face. This is amazing since the last two lines of the poem are, 'PTSD has many faces. One of them is mine.' It is as if I subconsciously made a self portrait.”
          © 2015 Ruth L. McIntosh, PTSD,
          Handmade paper and inkjet printing on paper, 16” x 20”
          We invite you to see and hear from these veterans at our Re-Integration Project Reading and Opening Reception on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 from 7:00-8:30 PM at the Terrazas Branch Library, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez Street, Austin, TX 78702!

          Thursday, August 11, 2016

          VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference in Pittsburgh August 2016

          Hi there. This is Silva reporting from Pittsburgh. There is something so special about being in the same place and space with people who share your passion, your struggles, and who know what you mean when you talk about breakthroughs in your work. That’s how I felt at the Intersections Conference.
          This image, jumbled words arts education emblazoned with the words
          VSA Texas wearing sunglasses, was created by Celia Hughes
          using at the “Cool Tools, Hot Topics”
          workshop at Intersections 2016.
          Krissie Marty from Forklift Danceworks and I got to present “Learning in Motion,” a workshop on creative movement strategies that employs the elements of dance in alignment with National Core Arts Standards. We had a room full of people who were eager to hear what we had to offer and as eager to contribute from their personal experiences. We had so much fun presenting to the group that I forgot almost instantly how nervous I was. I feel like we also got lucky as we were presenting on the first day at the first time slot so I got to enjoy other people’s workshops for the rest of the conference.
          Krissie and participants in build-a-phrase action!
          One of my favorite workshops was led by a Wolf Trap Institute For Early Learning Through The Arts teaching artist, in collaboration with two special education classroom teachers. They were presenting material that they have been working on for two years and in which they have combined books with music and movement. I love it when I go to a session and know that I can use the material in my work immediately. It is like filling your toolbox with brand new shining tools. Here is their website so that you can check them out:
          Valerie from the Wolf Trap Institute demonstrating her boat and sailor!
          Next year the VSA Intersections Conference will be in Austin, Texas – my hometown now – so keep your eyes open for the dates and make sure to come and share your work and meet other professionals in the field.
          In this photo, Sharron Rush of Knowbility, plays with floating silver mylar pillows
          in the Andy Warhol Museum at the opening reception.
          For more information about how you can get involved with Intersections 2017 in Austin, Texas contact