Thursday, August 17, 2017

Giving Voice Austin

Have you heard about our Giving Voice Austin program? It's pretty new. We launched the program in 2016, and this fall will be our second time around. We learned a lot from the first program and are excited to bring it back.

Do you ever wonder, “How does VSA Texas come up with these great ideas?” Well, we do have a brilliant staff over here, but this time we borrowed from the brilliance of VSA Colorado. They hosted Giving Voice for 10 years, and when they decided to retire it, we thought it was too good to see it go. Plus, Amber Atkins, one of the masterminds behind the program moved to Austin, and she wanted to start it here. Lucky us!

So what is Giving Voice, you ask? It is a partnership between AIGA and VSA Texas. We are perfect partners because we both have mysterious acronyms for names, provide professional development opportunities for artists, and want to create a vibrant, creative, and inclusive community. Learn more about AIGA on their website.

In this partnership, AIGA recruits professional designers who want to be mentors, and we recruit youth with disabilities who want to give voice to a social cause. We then bring them together as one-on-one pairs to each create a poster with a message.

Bruce and Braelon planning their poster design

Final poster design of “You Are Not Alone” by Braelon & Bruce, Giving Voice Austin 2016

Kim Hopson, curator of our 2016 program, says:
“The mentorship program and poster exhibition show so many themes. It reflects community arts education, design for good, and social justice. Most of all it's an enriching experience; for both the mentor and the mentee.
“Giving Voice is a platform for young people with disabilities. It lets them use art to explore issues that are important to them. Their design mentor collaborates with them and facilitates their work.
“It was a great honor to curate Giving Voice 2016! I can't wait to see what this year's mentors and mentees create!”

Max getting input from Hailey, another student’s mentor

Final poster design of “These Little Guys” by Max & David, Giving Voice Austin 2016

So if you are a young adult with a disability age 16-22, or know one, we want you to get involved in this program! We already have 12 mentors ready to go, a print shop that wants to print the posters, and a venue to show the posters during the East Austin Studio Tour in November. All we need are youths interested in voicing a message through art!

The time commitment is four Saturday meetings September 16-October 7 from 12:00-1:30 pm with lunch provided. Mentors and mentees will meet at the VSA Texas classroom in central Austin. Contact April at 512-454-9912 or april@vsatx.org to get an application today! Hurry, the deadline is August 28th, and you don’t want to miss this great opportunity!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Language Matters!

This past week the entire staff of VSA Texas has been busy co-hosting the Kennedy Center's Office of VSA & Accessibility's annual Intersections and Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conferences, which we were thrilled to have in Austin this year! I was also personally excited for the opportunity to participate as a panelist in one of the concurrent sessions entitled "If language matters, what should I say?" which centered around the complex and often controversial topic of disability terminology, a topic I have been passionate about for a while. You can take a look at my earlier blog on this topic Call Me Disabled, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word to read my perspective going into this session.

Marie Clapot and Rebecca McGinnis of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Madison Zalopany of the Whitney Museum of American Art brought this conversation to LEAD this year and invited several artists and advocates from Austin's disability community to participate as speakers including Theron Parker, Gail Dalrymple, Nicole Cortichiato, Renee Lopez, Dolores Gonzalez, and myself. All together, a representative from nearly every contingent of the disability community was present: we had an artist with an invisible disability, a deaf artist, a parent of an adult child with multiple disabilities, several disability advocates, and others.

Sign with arrow directs attendees to the 2017 VSA Intersections and LEAD Conferences
(Photo courtesy of VSA)

The goal of this session was not to be prescriptive but rather engage in meaningful discussions about the language we choose to use around disability, the language we choose to describe ourselves, why we make those decisions, and how those decisions may influence or reflect the way we view or interact with people with disabilities on a broader scale. In no way can I capture the depth nor the full scope of our hour-and-twenty-minute long conversation, but what I can do is share what I personally learned through discussion with other speakers and attendees of the session:

1. While I may fiercely celebrate my identity as a disabled person and proudly use Identity-First Language when I can, calling myself "disabled" may not always be the clearest nor most effective language to use, and it need not enter the majority of my interactions with others. Telling a venue, museum, or other business that I am a "wheelchair user" and need "wheelchair access" cuts straight to the point; meanwhile, my identity is simply that – mine – and it's up to me when, where, and how I choose to share it.

2. Language is fluid. In a given day, I might refer to myself as "disabled and proud," tell someone else I work with "people with disabilities," call a concert venue to ask if they are "wheelchair accessible," and spend an evening with friends and family where my disability isn't mentioned at all because frankly it isn't relevant or essential to everything I do. Eliminating all linguistic options for the sake of one isn't necessary, and it completely misses the point.

3. No one language fits all. The disability experience and the personal journey inherent in that experience exists on a vast spectrum and constantly fluctuates depending on our energy level, the kind of day we're having, or recent changes in our disability. While disability pride may be the ultimate goal, you can't force that on someone who isn't there yet or rush them through their own extremely personal journey. Respect them by using the language they prefer and move on.

4. Start with accommodations. Several people in the session discussed their difficulty assessing a client's disability without asking prying questions. One of the attendees suggested asking, "How may I assist you?" This seemed to be an optimal solution: start with offering assistance or asking if an accommodation is necessary; if one is needed, provide it. The reality is everyone needs an accommodation at some point, and it's not our place to ask why or demand a suitable reason.

5. Avoid euphemisms when possible. For many people with disabilities, euphemisms like "differently-able," "special needs," "physically-challenged," etc. sugarcoat something that doesn't need to be sugarcoated. We are comfortable with who we are, and we have adapted to our unique life experience. The word "disability" is not negative or painful for us to hear; in fact, it's the opposite: a source of pride, a badge of honor, a community we know and love.

6. At some point, the language you use will offend someone. It's inevitable, I'm afraid. Considering the multitude of people with disabilities, the countless different disabilities there are, and the myriad perspectives people have about the disability experience, it is simply impossible to always say the exact right thing. However, if you see a person as a person first, recognize that disability is a normal and natural part of life, not to be feared or pitied but embraced, and make strides to be as inclusive and accessible as possible, you are far less likely to offend someone. If, after all best intentions and care, you do offend somebody, acknowledge there are things you have yet to learn, apologize, and make a conscious effort to avoid repeating that mistake.

These six lessons are not exhaustive, but I hope they may prove a helpful guide to navigating the often uncertain waters of disability terminology. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Body Shift: The Element of Design

Hello, friends! This is Olivia, project coordinator for Body Shift, VSA Texas’ acclaimed mixed-ability dance project. Every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month Body Shift offers a class we call Elements in which we practice improvisational dance in an inclusive way by using the DanceAbility method. In DanceAbility, we work with four basic principles that are the building blocks of choreography. These include sensation, relationship, time, and design. Oftentimes we will choose one of these principles to narrow the focus in order to increase the students' understanding and awareness of how to make use of these elements.

In the July Elements class Kelly Hasandras and I chose to focus on “design.” Oftentimes when people hear the words improv dance they think that means the dancers will make random movements with little or no pre-determined structure. This is rarely the case. In fact, improvisation is a technique that when practiced regularly and with certain principles in mind has the potential to create quite organized compositions in the moment. One way that improv dance can take on a choreographed appearance is to be aware of designing the space using elements that include placement/proximity, levels, patterns, repetition, imitation, unison movement, development, contrast, physical contact, beginnings and endings, entrances and exits, etc.

When you combine body awareness, non-verbal relationships between dancers, use of varied timing (fast, slow, stillness), design naturally occurs. How you move and where you move in relationship to others and the space around you can be determined by your intuition and imagination. Improvisers shift between a more intuitive, preconscious choice making and conscious choice making. An example of this – I might notice that other people in my group are moving very slowly. My intuition might draw me to join in moving slowly with them. My conscious mind might suggest that I contrast what they are doing by moving fast, whatever fast means to me. One is not a better choice than the other. You should be able to make both choices and weave them together. Alito Alessi suggests, “As an improviser you can think of the whole space as a soup that you are helping to cook. Taste the overall flavor and let your senses tell you what spice it needs.”

This is one of the ways that the DanceAbility method makes dance friendly to people of all physical and cognitive abilities. Participants who are more advanced theatre and dance performers can challenge themselves to see and sense what everyone around them is doing and make choices to place themselves in ways that make a satisfying stage picture. Folks who have little or no experience can challenge themselves to move in ways that feel good to their body and ways that relate to their own sensations or the people around them. One does not have to be cognizant of what their movements look like to an audience to have a dance that is both satisfying to do and to watch. Ultimately the deeper one’s concentration and perception of what is happening internally and externally, the more compelling the experience both inside and out.

Here is an example of spontaneous design from the recent Body Shift performance of Nexus outside Ballet Austin during the Austin Dance Festival. You can see the dancers using their awareness of levels (high/medium/low), facing (giving or taking focus by looking in a specific direction), shape (what is the line/placement of your body), and space (how are you placed in relationship to the other dancers) to create an interesting stage picture.

I hope you will join us for this month's Elements class which will be taught by Michael Joplin and takes place August 12 and 26 from 2:30-4:30pm at Townlake YMCA. No membership is required and adults of all abilities age 16 and up are encouraged to attend. Cost is pay-what-you-can on a sliding scale of $5-$20. Remember if you are new to dance but feel intimidated by jumping right in you are welcome to observe class and chat with the dancers about their experience before or after class.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Support Houston Artists with Disabilities

Although we are based in Austin, VSA Texas strives to serve the state of Texas as much as we can. The annual Houston Abilities Expo is one of those times we get a chance to showcase our Houston artists. And we have lots of talent in Houston!

The Expo is a great opportunity for people with disabilities to see the latest and greatest in wheelchairs, accessible vans, and assistive technology. It is also a place to learn about resources from across the state. What we bring to the event is an opportunity for people to learn about VSA Texas and to help artists with disabilities make a living off their artwork. You can be a direct participant in this by buying something creative and handmade by one of our Artist Market artisans.

"Buy Local Art" button

So if you plan to attend the event, consider bringing some extra money to purchase gift items such as keychains, t-shirts, or jewelry from Younique Abilities. Or if you are a reader, support Houston science fiction writer Ron Hull by buying one of his books. If you are a music lover, buy a CD from Eric Clow. And almost everyone I know has walls in their home. Don't leave them blank! Buy art to decorate them. We will have photographs by Drew Bedo, digital paintings by Megan Fry, drawings by David Sulak, and mixed media art by Dee Franklin. Oh, and I can't forget about the spoons! We have Cuddle Spoons in the Artist Market this year! What are Cuddle Spoons? Come find out at the Artist Market in the Abilities Expo. Read about all of the artists in the Artist Market here.

Windmill Drawing by David Sulak

The Abilities Expo is happening next Friday-Sunday, August 4-6 in Hall E of the NRG Center in Houston. It is a free event. You can register and find more details on the Abilities Expo website.

Abilities Expo Promo Photo shows a man in a walker holding his fist in the air triumphantly.

If you can't buy anything, come anyway and support our artists by looking at their art and hearing their stories. Some of our artists will also present a workshop at the Expo Friday at 11:45 AM. In their workshop entitled "The Art of a Hobby: How to Make the Creative World Accessible to You," artists Eric Clow, Drew Bedo, and Dee Franklin will share tips, tricks, and workarounds they used to make their arts accessible and encourage you to unlock your own creative passions.

We hope to see you at the Expo!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What I Learned from Being a Sighted Guide

Hi folks, Lynn here. I decided to share some tips for sighted guides in this week's blog because I was recently assigned to be a sighted guide for a person at a conference in Austin. I had not done this before, but I had also been working on a written project on the very same topic. So I did a little research and learned some simple techniques for being a sighted guide for people who are blind or visually impaired.

A daughter serves as a sighted guide for her father at a restaurant. (Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind)

Here is a basic step-by-step guide. But always bear in mind that each person has a different need and a different experience. It is up to you as the sighted guide to learn and listen.

  1. Address the person and identify yourself. Tell them you are there to assist them.
  2. Touch the follower’s (the person who is blind or visually impaired) elbow, forearm, or hand with the back of your hand.
  3. The follower will choose which part of your arm to grasp, or it may be the top of your shoulder depending upon your height. They will let you know which is most comfortable and secure for them.
  4. Walk at a comfortable pace.
  5. The correct grip is important for comfort and safety.
  6. The correct stance is important for protection.
  7. Doorways – it is important to allow the person being guided to be in control of the door; they should be on the hinge side.
  8. Narrow spaces – advise the person that a narrow space is ahead.
  9. Stairs – stop at the first step and tell the follower whether the steps go up or down. Stop when you reach the end of the stairs and tell the person when you are at the top or bottom, respectively.
  10. Seating – explain which way the chair is facing and where it is in relation to the rest of the room. Also explain which part of the chair you are touching.
  11. If leaving the person alone, leave them in contact with an object.

Here are a few bonus tips:

  • Remember there are differences among people who are blind or visually impaired; no two people are alike.
  • Many people have some useful vision, and there are also variations in how people have adjusted to their vision.
  • The best way to know how to be helpful is to ask.

Here is an instructional video from YouTube that can help you see how this all looks in action:


I hope these tips will help you be the best sighted guide possible! If you have any other helpful tips, please tell us in the comments:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

INTRODUCING the 2017 Inaugural Haven Street-Allen Award Luncheon

This year, we are excited to announce our inaugural luncheon on September 19 at Saengerrunde Hall in downtown Austin, where we will be honoring past board member, Forrest Haven Street-Allen.

At VSA Texas, Haven willingly shared her knowledge and insights with her fellow board members and the staff, and supported the activities offered by VSA Texas with her presence and her financial support. She was instrumental in updating the organization’s personnel policies and led the board through an interactive process to update both the mission and vision statements. She truly had a “spark" and embodied how important it is to give back to the community you live in.

A woman with dark blond layered shoulder length hair wearing pearls around her neck and a blue scoop neck shirt smiles in front of a brick wall and small indoor green plant

Starting in 2018, the Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award will be offered in memory of Street-Allen, who died in January 2015. Haven was an insightful and caring person who had a history of helping others. She was a Board Member of VSA Texas as well as the Austin Dispute Resolution Center, a volunteer mediator for the Resolution Center, and the Director of Human Resources for St. Edward’s University in Austin until her retirement in 2012. The Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award recognizes her dedication, vision and respect for all, and honors her commitment to creating greater access to, and support for, the arts in Texas.

The Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award honors an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming a creative dimension in the arts. Each year, the Artist of the Year Award is given to one artist with a disability in Texas who, through a one-time creative act or a substantial record of achievement, embodies the spirit and vision of VSA Texas.

This individual challenges perceptions of how people contribute by demonstrating artistic excellence or leading the way as a community catalyst for change. In addition to a plaque commemorating artistic achievement, each award also consists of an honorarium of $500, recognition as a featured artist on the VSA Texas website, and an invitation to attend our annual luncheon as the guest of honor to be publicly recognized for individual artistic achievements.

Nominations are open to any artist with a disability over the age of 16 years in any medium. All nominations will be juried by a panel of judges and results will be announced January 31. All nominations must be in by December 31 of the previous year to be considered for the award.

Tickets for the luncheon will be $10 each and go on sale August 19, 2017. Save the date for this exciting event! We are currently seeking sponsors for food and varying monetary levels, so please contact me at janelle@vsatx.org or 512-454-9912 to get involved today!

Hope to see you all there September 19!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

What Does Independence Mean to You?

Depending on who you ask, independence can mean many different things. For people living in nations like ours, independence may be a fond reminder of freedom from tyrannical rule. For others, independence may indicate self-sufficiency on a personal level and the ultimate sign of maturity. For people with disabilities, who may require daily or weekly assistance, independence often means control over one's own decisions and the freedom to participate in the community. With the passing of another Independence Day, we decided to ask a few of our OMOD speakers what independence means to them:

Shaniqua Esparza

Independence does not mean having to do everything on your own. I used to think that. Independence means doing the things you want with whatever help is available to you. It takes a braver, stronger and more independent person to acknowledge and seek help.

Shaniqua poses at the National Mall in Washington DC with the Washington Monument in the background.

Renee Lopez

Independence means living my life as I choose to live it. The operative word here being I! No amount of independence would exist for me if it weren't for my personal care attendants. They give me the ability to live in the community. Without them, I would have to live in an institutional setting, like a nursing home, where my life would cease to feel worthwhile. Independence to me is being a full member of my community and being recognized and appreciated as such. Independence ultimately means that I, as an American citizen, have the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Nothing else matters to me more than that.

Renee poses before Austin's skyline at sunset.

Adam Farris

In my honest opinion independence is where we are free to be ourselves. Think about it – this great nation was founded 241 years ago. We as a country need to understand that there are people that are different or unique from others in so many ways. Independence is where we can be free to be ourselves, and be united, with no hatred towards others. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a frequent quote that I like. Remember that everyone is equal in their own way.

Photo of Adam beside black text over blue reading, "My name is Adam Farris, I am 29 years old, and I don't think of myself as disabled because I have been able to accomplish so much. Maybe none of us are really "disabled," maybe we are all just different people with unique abilities. The world needs to understand that all of us are alike."

Kamand Alaghehband

I always feel independent when I am involved with Special Olympics. Let me win, but if I don't, then let me be brave in the attempt.

Kamand stands beside her Special Olympics swim teammates. Everyone holds their fists in the air proudly.

Jordana Gerlach

I feel independent when I take care of my horse. My horse cannot tell me when he is not feeling well or when his shoes are uncomfortable, so I needed to learn how his mood changes when he is sick in order to take care of him. If I couldn't recognize the signs of a problem, I could have lost my horse. Keeping a close eye on him makes me feel independent. Here we are with the farrier, the man who cares for my horse's feet and changes his shoes every six weeks:


Kaye Love

I experience my independence when I choose to rely on my inner Knowing, instead of the opinions of others. By focusing on my Truth I can live my life in a way that is best for me. When I give my gut instincts more consideration than professional opinions I find myself to be healthier and happier, as I do not function like the textbook says I should. I can experience my own acceptance when others are disapproving or critical, and speak my truth even if it is unique. Reliance on my inner Truth sets me free.

Kaye wearing a business suit

Eric Clow

In the contentious world of politics, our compassion for our fellow countryman and woman may begin to erode with the thought of supporting people we don't even know. In actuality, supporting programs that keep people with disabilities and seniors healthy and active in the community is supporting yourself when you get old or find yourself stricken by an unfortunate accident or injury, it's supporting your parents or your children, it's an investment in an entire country where disability is a normal and natural part of life. To me, independence is the freedom to pursue the life I want within the same opportunities and limitations as my fellow citizens without disabilities.

Living independently in the community gives me the opportunity to express myself creatively and develop new hobbies, like painting. This is "Tree at Sunset."

What does independence mean to you? Please tell us in the comments:

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Introducing... OMOD's New Website!

Dear friends and devoted blog readers,

I am excited to announce that our new OMOD website is now live (thanks to a lot of hard work by our OMOD team, who spent countless hours developing and revising the downloadable resources, and Trisummit Solutions, the team of WordPress experts who built and designed the site)! I would like to take you for a little tour around the site, but I encourage you to take your own self-guided tour when you have the time.

First we have our homepage (see below):

Note the new OMOD logo. It's pretty snazzy, so you can assume I had little to do with it :)

Here you can get a little taste of what all you will find on the site and watch a highlights reel from our 2015 class showcase in Austin. Scroll down to find our upcoming events and most recent blog posts.

At the top of every page, including the homepage, you can access buttons which will take you to nealy any page on the site, including the About You (this page's button doubles as a drop-down menu with links to resources for trainers, speakers, and conference organizers), Events, About Us, News, and Contact Us pages.

Also, at the left side of every page, about halfway down, you will find two small, gray square buttons (see below); these will allow you to switch to high contrast or increase the size of the text on the website.

Buttons to adjust the contrast and font size

You can find our biggest downloadable (and free!) resources on the Trainers page (below): our complete 139-page curriculum in English and Spanish along with guides for how to draft and submit conference presentation proposals, support and prepare speakers with disabilities for conferences, and recruit participants, volunteers, and instructors for an OMOD class. Although these resources are downloadable as PDFs on our site, we can also send you the materials in a Word document format, if you use a screen reader or some other assistive technology that does not work well with PDFs. Just shoot us an email, and we'll get you the materials you need.

The long list of PDF resources available for download on the Trainers page

On the Speakers page, you can read more about the benefits of joining the OMOD program, find out if we have our next six-week class scheduled, and sign up for our email list.

If you are a conference host seeking speakers for your next conference, check out our Conference Organizers page. You'll find a fillable form on that page where you can tell us about your conference, if you want a solo speaker or ensemble presentation, and what topic you'd like us to present on.

Regardless of your specific role, you can stay in the know by following our News page. Each new blog post gets added to this page automatically.

And that brings us to the end of our tour! I hope you will continue to explore the wonderful world of OMOD and join our email list so you never miss an update!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Keeping Your Brain Healthy in the 21st Century

Hello Friends,

A few weeks ago I told you about a new initiative of VSA Texas involving older adults and art. We are really excited about everything that has been happening with Mobile Art and the new people we are serving. We know the arts have restorative powers, and provide opportunities for expressing your creativity, contemplative thinking, relationship building, and just plain fun!

In early June, I had the pleasure of attending a Dementia & Museums Symposium at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. I’ll admit it. I am kind of a conference geek. Especially when I have the opportunity to meet people who are passionate and committed to their cause. And yes, I was surrounded by museum staff from across the country who are running great programs for folks with early memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.  I learned that, “it’s about living in the moment and going on a journey, together” (thank you Jane Tygesson). I learned that people are care partners, not care givers. What a respectful way to refer to people who may have been together for decades, and are still together, just in a different way.

A large face fills the canvas. White hair encircles the top of the head, and a non-smiling face peers out at the viewer. Flecks of gold paint cover portions of the face which is dominated by a large nose and bright red lips.
Ebony G. Patterson, Untitled (Blingas II from the series Gangstas for Life) 2008

Damon McLeese, a colleague and friend who runs Access Gallery in Denver, was the keynote speaker. He provided a great foundation for the next three days as he explained how he works with young people with disabilities through his gallery programming. However, in the past year, he has expanded his programs to offer “Granny Does Graffiti,” a mural project that matches older adults with dementia with a Denver-based graffiti artist – so cool! And what we can learn about each other when given a way in through art. Staff of the care center where these adults stay are learning new things about the former lives of their clients, thereby opening a window into new ways of helping and being together.

Duke University has a Medical School conducting some groundbreaking research into Alzheimer’s. On the last morning, Dr. Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, PhD and Director of the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Center at Duke shared some latest statistics on the disease. She laid out seven steps for people to follow to help reduce the risk of developing early memory loss or dementia. These steps are not earth-shattering, but worth repeating.

At the Sarah P Duke Gardens, a circle of large human like forms constructed from branches cut from trees on the campus, sits in the middle of a large field.
Patrick Dougherty, The Big Easy 2017

Step 1. Change your mindset. Ageism is rampant in our society. Many older adults are responsible for maintaining their health and continuing to contribute to society. Expect more from yourself than others may expect. Here is another way to think about changing your mindset about growing older and living longer: disability is something that you are living with; disease is something that you are dying from; Alzheimer’s is just an accelerated process of what we will all eventually go through.

Step 2. Treat what can be treated. Curb your smoking and alcohol habits. Manage your medical conditions. Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disease, sleep disorders, arthritis, anxiety, and depression can all be contributing factors to changes in the brain.

Step 3. Get physically active. Aerobic, resistance training, daily 15-20 minute walks. These are all good. And mix it up a bit with gardening, raking leaves, or taking the stairs.

I took Kathleen’s advice and walked around the Duke campus after her talk. A long stone building with arches and dormer windows houses the Duke Divinity School.

Step 4. Watch what you eat. And that doesn’t mean looking at yourself in the mirror. A Mediterranean diet is really good for you. Limit your sugar and salt intake. Eat carrots, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and salmon.

Step 5. Work your brain. Engage in new ways of thinking. Do ART! Studies have shown that art activities – visual, music, dancing, theater – stimulate the brain and help to reduce risk. A small study from Newcastle on Tyne in England broke individuals into three groups: one group did puzzles, one went on walks, the third took art classes. You won’t be surprised to learn the art class participants reported the highest level of satisfaction and continued to participate after the study was concluded. What did the study reveal? Social engagement and a challenging, new activity resulted in a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Step 6. Stress reduction and caring for your emotional health. SLEEP. Know how many hours of sleep you need per day and try to maintain it. Anywhere between 6.5 and 9.5 is considered within the range. Also social engagement, outdoor activities, pet therapy – I have cats. It works – meditation, yoga. You don’t have to do all of these things. Just try one. And, of course, sleep.

Lotus flowers in the gardens open to the warm spring sun.

Step 7. Be part of the solution. This one comes directly from Dr. Welse-Bohmer. Participate in research to help add to the body of knowledge being tested and shared.

The summer program of Mobile Art is with older adults and their care partners at home. In partnership with Family Eldercare, we will deliver art supplies and instructions to folks who no longer leave their homes and then work with them over the phone to complete six diverse art projects. Theresa Zelazny, founder of Mobile Art, developed the lessons and we look forward to getting to know our newest friends. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

And Yet We Rise

We are happy to feature our friend and Lion & Pirate regular David Borden in this week's blog. David recently published And Yet We Rise, a truly fantastic graphic novel that tackles the complex, difficult subject matter of life with significant disabilities and caregiving with frankness, humor, and sincerity – something frequently lacking in much of the existing literature on these topics. (Click here for a more detailed review of the book by our own April Sullivan). We were thrilled to host David's book release party at our Lion & Pirate open mic and glad to hear a little more about the origins of his book:


I sat on the sofa, window blinds drawn with Savannah in my arms. She was so small, so beautiful. I was so tired. Dead tired. I could barely function. I was depressed, confused, and hungry for help or advice of any kind. Why wouldn’t she eat? Why wouldn’t she sleep? Why wouldn’t she stop screaming for hours… days at a time? I knew she had a significant brain injury because I’d seen the MRI images. I knew she had out-of-control seizures without seeing them etched by an EEG because she jittered and clenched more often than I could count.

David reading to Savannah

I knew the clinical side of the equation. The doctors had described it, labelled, it, and examined it with excruciating detail. What I didn’t know was the human side. I hadn’t met other parents yet. We tried support groups, but neither my wife nor myself had the kind of personality that does well in a support group, so we remained isolated.

I looked for books, but the books people recommended, the best-sellers, so to speak, about disability, dealt with autism, Down syndrome, degenerative diseases, or mental illness. We found a few good books, but they often played it too safe, staying overly positive and inspirational. So, in the back of my mind, a seed was planted. I would write the book I wanted—surely someone else wants it too. I would write a book that dared to tackle the hard questions:

How do you care for someone year after year who won’t get better?

How do you care for yourself when you spend all your time and energy caring for someone else?

How do you deal with the conflicting emotions of grief and relief?

The whole family

I struggled with the manuscript for years. I couldn’t capture Savannah in prose. This vibrant, tenacious little girl who blossomed in her teen years stayed locked away from the reader because I found it impossible to create dialogue with her. Because she was non-verbal, I could only describe her reactions with smiles and eye movements so many times before these scenes became tedious. I abandoned the manuscript. The memoir had become just one more painful failure.

After Savannah passed away, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, her sister (eleven at the time), wrote me a touching letter. I didn’t know how to write her back. In my attempt to share her sister’s story, and my story, in an accessible way, I stumbled upon the idea of adding a visual element… make the book into a graphic novel (a long-form comic book that deals with serious subject matter). Suddenly, the book flowed and Savannah appeared in the pages.

Savannah

And as far as I can tell, there is nothing like it out there. As one reader noted: “this book takes a difficult subject and translates it into an easy to understand format: a beautiful story with simple, compelling drawings. This is NOT a Hallmark Special. If you’re looking for fuzzy inspiration, this is not your book. This is the book that challenges you to think differently, but also envelopes you in love and compassion.”

I have been so pleased by the overwhelming response that I’ve received from the book. Fox 7 ran a feature story, I was interviewed on the One in a Million Baby pod-cast, and had a standing-room-only book release party at Malvern Books with my good friends of the Lion and Pirate.

Click here for more information on the book or to download the first chapter free.

David with graphic novels

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creativity and Connection

This past Tuesday, Austin Playback Theatre was gracious enough to invite our organization to be the featured nonprofit for the June edition of their Tuesday Night Stories, a monthly improv performance series where all proceeds of each performance benefits a different local nonprofit organization. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Austin Playback Theatre, but I must say I had a really good experience listening to other people’s stories and then seeing those stories expressed through improv.

For any of you unfamiliar with Austin Playback Theatre, it's an improvisational theatre in which the troupe elicits impressions and stories from the audience and then plays them back via improv. The troupe collaborates with the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Street in Austin, who provides a space to perform at no charge so that all donations can go directly to the featured organization.

It was quite an intimate setting. A musician off to the side provided an ambience for each piece performed. Each actor stepped forward, gave their name and a short little story. Then the ensemble acted out the story, giving the audience a flavor of what the night’s improvisations would look like.

Improv actors portraying a story

A representative from VSA Texas gave a brief history of who we are, and then the emcee asked everyone in the audience to think of something we had recently experienced, basically a feel good moment, nothing elaborate, just something that we had connected to during the day. One story related an experience of rain, no power, eating pretzels and cheese, and playing scrabble by a lantern. The ensemble gave their interpretation of the story. It was amazing because I realized that through simply listening to the vignette, they were able to capture the feeling, the nuances of the experience, and relay it to the audience without much to do or say. It was a physical expression of the verbal story.

Improv of story

Several little moments from the audience were shared and played out in the same way, which primed us to share larger stories of how we connect with others through creativity, the theme for this month's performance. Soon, the members of the audience became storytellers: each would share a memory, and through answering brief questions from a moderator, a mini-play evolved.

Improv of story

The ensemble again caught the nuances with minimal activity. Stories were about sorrow and death, kittens, epiphanies of personal discovery, unity in a comical physical condition. The evening ended in a unified creative moment, and what happened was we got to know more about the other audience members. There were intense moments and funny moments, but no pressure to say anything, just observe or share. It was a very safe setting.

Relating a story to the improv facilitator

A little history about improv that I found interesting: unlike the foundations of professional acting, few historical records clearly pinpoint the official beginning of improvisation. To understand the importance of improvisation in a theatrical education, one must look at the first major occurrences of improvisation throughout history. There have been texts created at the moment of performance, referred to as improvisatory presentation, which was likely how the Atellan farce – improvised farces dealing with family problems or poking fun at historical and mythological figures – came to be so popular among Roman citizens. The Atellan farce became a literary genre in the first century B.C.E., as Roman authors began to write down the humorous and unplanned antics that occurred on stage, making the Atellan farce arguably the first well known improv troupe in recorded theatre history.

The improvisational theatre movement in America started in the late 1930s by Viola Spolin. In her twenties, she worked for the WPA as a social worker and “drama supervisor” at Hull House, Jane Addam’s famous settlement house in Chicago. Spolin used traditional children’s games and invented dozens of new games in workshops with immigrants to help empower them to become more spontaneous and less self-conscious and to build a supportive community (her games are collected in her seminal book “Improvisations for the Theater”). This little commentary is only a brief bit of trivia that offers us a window into the long history of improvisation.

Back to Austin Playback Theatre: their goal is to help nonprofits in Austin build community and awareness while raising money and building ties among Austinites who enjoy helping others & creating strong community connections! You can visit Austin Playback Theatre on the web for information on how to get your nonprofit featured in one of their shows.

Thanks again to Austin Playback Theatre for choosing VSA Texas as one of your featured nonprofits!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Celebrating the New Media Arts Semester Long Residency Program

A couple weeks ago I woke up and, as morning routines sometimes tend to go, my son had a meltdown. This one was a little different, though. He was really down on himself and started talking about how many shortcomings he had so I decided to keep him home with me that day. The hang up was that I had a showcase for Crockett High School to attend for work. The mama side of me knew these two did not coincide on accident.

The showcase at Crockett that day was the celebration of the 4 months of work by Ian Fry and his colleague Christina as part of our New Media Arts Semester Long Residency Program. They spent this semester teaching kids freshman aged and up about percussion and ended it with an ensemble performance where parents and teachers as well as other students could attend.

The child of a teacher, Ian told me that he started teaching 25 years ago when he was just 10 years old. He has a performance degree in Jazz and Classical Percussion and a Master of Arts and uses his skills to teach transitioning kids how to connect with music, specifically percussion. Ian is a staple in the VSA Texas family and seeing him interact with his students is something that is truly inspirational. I observed his ability to tune into what they needed individually and that is what a true teacher does. I got to chat with Ian today about his experience at Crockett and I want to share some of that interview with you today for our blog.

Percussion teacher Ian, dressed in black pants and a black shirt, uses a cowbell for rhythm as he warms up for the showcase with his students playing various types of drums.

Why is learning about music so important?
“It’s a shared human experience that we all literally resonate with and enjoy to some degree. It’s part of our life no matter what. I think that you don’t have to be objectively good at an instrument to benefit from it. Making those sounds and vibrations is so important to having a shared language.”

The first day vs. the last day:
“We didn’t know anyone, we had only met the teacher, but I remember them being receptive. It was really cool to walk in and have them be so welcoming. The students seemed so excited to be exposed to a drumming class, I don’t know if they ever had it before or not, but they were super excited, eager and focused. When we left that last day we were part of their family. It was great to, in those 4 short months, really connect with them and see them build their skills.”

What kind of things did you teach them?
“The program has an aspect of music literacy as well as learning rhythms and music by copying things. People tend to learn really well by repetition and in that repetition we ingrain those skills that we want to master. Each class, we ended up going over the same routine and that helped with the retention of knowledge. We learned a lot about Brazilian, Cuban and hip hop styles of percussion. It was all carnival rhythm.”

What was one of the most impactful things you saw through the semester?
“There were two guys that stood out to me. One who was extremely non-verbal and the other one just seemed like he was on the spectrum, verbal but sometimes not very active. What was amazing for us to witness was from the beginning one would take his medication during the day and when he got to the class he was very tired; he’d be napping a little bit but when everyone started playing he would snap out of it and start playing energetically. The other one was super non-verbal, barely ever played at all, but by the end he was playing and not only making noise but playing a really cool triplet pattern that sounded really nice.”

At VSA Texas, our mission is to make art accessible to everyone, no matter their abilities and our program at Crockett did not fall short of fulfilling that mission. I am so glad I got to expose my son to everyone that day because a bad morning was made better by just being there and that is a priceless experience. I can’t wait to see how many more minds we reach by continuing to do what we do!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Connections

Hi VSA Texas friends! This is April, and I have been working hard on our veterans program lately. We have an exciting event planned for June 15th from 6-8 pm at Art979 Gallery, 210 W 26th Street in Bryan, TX.

Invitation for the 2017 Distinguished Artist Veterans Showcase that includes a painting of a gecko by Mary Ishler and a poem called The Desert by Judy Smith.

This will be our 8th annual Distinguished Artist Veterans art exhibit and we have something different planned. This year it is all about connections! We expanded our program in 2015 to include The Re-Integration Project writing classes. Our second publication of writings by veterans is out at the printer now and it is filled with 100 pages of poems, short stories and screenplays.

Cover of The Re-Integration Project publication including an abstract marker drawing by Valerie Short called Everyone’s Dream.

How is this about connections, you ask? Well, we have connected our veteran writers with veteran artists and songwriters by asking the artists and musicians to choose a piece of writing from the book and create a response. The art has been coming in all week to my office and every artist who drops off artwork is excited to tell the story of how their work was inspired by the veteran writers. Denise Knebel was here this morning from San Antonio. She created a painting in response to a short story “Terminal” by Thomas Orlando. In this story a junior officer butts heads with a colonel, but by the end of the story, their relationship becomes one of mutual respect. The connection that the officer makes with the colonel in the beginning of the story comes back around to him in the end. We find a similar storyline in Perry Jefferies “Club-Footed Frankenstein.” As Denise explained it, so much of what happens in the military is about connections between people. She portrayed that in her acrylic on canvas, “Connections…for us all.”

An acrylic painting with many layers including images of figures and planes overlaid by square patterns of purple bars, dripping veins of green and yellow, and circles of gold.

Beyond the art, we are also working with veteran songwriters. As they turn in their songs, I am finding a theme to the music. Most of the songs are soul- or country-influenced and all of them are about love. With titles such as “Tornado of Love” by Glenn Towery or “People Just Need Love” by Rick Milisci, the songs bring about a feeling of love and the connection each of us has with everyone else.

I am telling you, this is going to be a great event! If you can’t make it to Bryan on June 15th, I urge you to take a trip to view the show while it is on display until July 15th. Or visit our website, because I will be posting the writings, songs, and art there soon.

Finally, I want to say, this project would not be possible without funding support from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. In the spirit of connections, I want to share with you a fantastic blog by one of the Peer & Family Support Program mentors that was published on the Reeve Foundation's blog recently. The blog, written by Julie Rodes, describes her journey from being a patient with a new spinal cord injury to her recent acceptance into medical school.

Stay connected!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Horticultural Arts

Hi there. This is Celia and I want to tell you a little bit about a wonderful new program we have added to our weekend classes. In partnership with Mobile Art, this Sunday is the fourth class in a limited series we are calling Horticultural Arts. The classes are part playing with flowers and part healing. Led by organic gardner Mary Kraemer, the experiential workshops explore how flowering plants and their essence influence our lives in ways both seen and unseen. This Sunday, we will learn about taking photographs of plants and flowers and will begin to assemble a photo book. Here are some of my photos taken recently in the Northeast:
Tulips in Spring

Garden of earthly delights

Bleeding Hearts and Lilacs

I am looking forward to improving my technique on Sunday! Classes are only $10 and walk-ins are welcome. I hope to see you there!

And here is Lynn Johnson on her Zen meditation reflection experience:

Hmm. I must say I have been intrigued from the outset, and there are seven more classes coming up with a kaleidoscope of offerings. The one I attended recently was “Flower Gazing Meditation, Mini-Japanese Zen Garden Making, and Learning Basic Meditation,” the latter essentially meaning to breathe and focus for about 3-5 minutes. It was very relaxing just breathing, which for me after all sorts of allergies and bronchitis, is a gift in itself. Mary read different meditation pieces, and we sat quietly and listened. As for the rest of the two hours... I cannot replicate nor remember beyond being in the present Zen moment, and we were all there.

I did notice large plastic jars filled with what appeared to be rice and sand colored dirt, some small plates, a collection of little gardening utensils, and a bowl of rocks. Everyone was asked to pick four rocks, representing different things such as "fresh" and "clear," a wall, and two other items I frankly don’t remember because I was still so focused on breathing, but I really liked my selection of rocks. We held each one in our hand and did a slight meditation holding the thought of the rock we had chosen.

Afterward, we put those aside, and then we got our small plastic bowl, and we chose our dirt to start making our mini-Zen Garden. Loved this process! I chose a dark, reddish dirt that had an interesting smell and tossed my rocks into the dirt very much like the “Chance Dance” that Phillip Glass, the great composer, used to do with modern dancers, playing music as the dancers improvised as they went along. So I chanced the Zen Garden rock throwing, letting the rocks land where they may.

We got our choice of tiny garden tools, (i.e. a rake, trowel, and three-pronged fork). I chose the little rake and proceeded to arrange my little garden as Mary read to us peaceful stories about Zen Gardens and showed us wonderful pictures from famous Zen Gardens. While we were busy tending to our 8” bowls of dirt, we listened to stories about Haiku poetry and how many syllables they contain, and we talked about what each of our rocks meant to us. I chose my clear rock as the pinnacle of my garden, meaning "awake and clear." We then each wrote a Haiku poem. Next we chose our Shinto shrine; mine was a little box with a little roof where I put my poem and a special rock.
My Haiku written in green ink on a white slip of paper:
“Loud bird sweetness sings
Soft wind joyfully flowing
Freedom soul awake”
  My mini-Zen Garden and Shinto shrine: pastel background, miniature blue roof with painted butterfly, tiny rake leaning on the roof and placed on red, gravelly dirt with a clear rock, gold rock, pink stone, and white stone.

A Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to house one or more Shinto kami. Its most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects and not for worship. Structurally, a shrine is usually characterized by the presence of a honden or sanctuary where the kami, or sacred object(s), are housed. My little Shinto shrine is now on my shelf in my office where it rests beside my mini-Zen Garden, in which I love to create new patterns in the dirt and scatter my rocks wherever they may wander.

There are many more classes to discover here at VSA Texas. These Horticultural Arts classes are available through July 16th. Visit the VSA Texas website or call me to sign up at 512-454-9912. Hey – it’s only $10, and you will never regret you came!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Here's to All the Moms!

With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate moms and share what motherhood means to us!

April:
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there! My mother is one of my favorite people in the whole world. She is an artist and a scientist and an explorer of adventures. I grew up with the understanding that I could be anything that I wanted to be. She would tell me she would love me even if I sold pencils on the side of the road. That kind of reassurance made it possible for me to follow my dreams of being an artist and working in the arts. My sisters and I try to spend Mother’s Day with her but it gets harder every year with all of our busy schedules. Plus my sisters are both mothers now too. When we do get together, we try to go to the beach and have a relaxing getaway. This year, because I am so busy this weekend, I took my mom to the beach last weekend. She really wanted to go fishing. So we went to the pier and enjoyed the breeze and she gave it a go. Here is a picture of her fishing. She didn’t catch anything, but she had a great time and I enjoyed my time hanging out with her.


Janelle:
Every day feels like Mother's Day to me. Seeing my son grow and greet the day each morning, tell me about his field trips at school, use new words, discover new things, that's what being a mother is all about. I used to think I cared about presents and such, but what really makes me feel fulfilled is seeing him turn into the person he is supposed to be.
Me and T

Lynn:
It has been 25 years since I last celebrated Mother’s Day with a gift, a smile, maybe a pie, but always a card. My memories are so many: her arched eyebrow when I did something wrong, her hug after scolding me, many long years of her sewing clothes for me, including my wedding dress. Countless meals she made for us all, her attempts at fudge which never quite made it, our hot chocolates after midnight Christmas Eve mass. Clean sheets especially when I had a cold or flu, a cool washcloth for my forehead after crying over some silly boyfriend. Encouraging me to read everything and always providing a copious amount of books to read. Sticking up for me when she felt some teacher had done me wrong. Showing me the world and all the cultures it has to offer. She made a great pound cake and always had a jar of freshly baked cookies when she had the time. She taught me how to shovel sand, sod grass, paint baseboards, make a good cup of coffee. She let me cook at a young age. When she said "no," you knew she meant "no." She didn’t back down much to my chagrin. I could wheedle and whine and exasperate her so, but no always meant no. She was the worst joke teller, so she didn’t tell many jokes. People loved talking with her about all sorts of things – her oncologist who was getting married visited her many times in the hospital seeking advice about his upcoming nuptials. We were so different – she was tall and thin, I am short and not so thin, she had dark hair, I had light hair – but I realize now in so many ways we have become alike. I learned the same love of fairness, equality, and sharing with others. And I'm probably the next worst joke teller after her.
My mom and dad

Eric:
There is a whole lot I could say about my mom, but more than any memory, what comes to mind is how tirelessly she worked to make sure I would have the best life possible. And in addition to being a fierce advocate for me, she also advocated for countless other students with disabilities through her 20+ years of service as a special education teacher. Most of the good things I have in my life I owe to her. I value our close relationship, our ability to laugh at the most absurd and often painful situations, and I still reach for the stars knowing she'll support me each step of the way. Love you, Mom!
At a student awards ceremony with my mom and some seriously long hair

Celia:
My mother has been gone for a very long time. But I often think of her and how she and my father raised my brothers and I to be hard working, caring and honest adults. I recognize Mom in my mannerisms and many of my little sayings about the ironies of life. I wish that she and I could have had more time together because I think she would find satisfaction in her handiwork. Even though, I can still hear her voice telling me to "sit up straight and for goodness sake, cut your hair." Oh Phyllis. I like my long hair as much as I love you. Happy Mothers Day!


What are your favorite mom memories? Please tell us in the comments!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Future of Me

First and foremost, I'd like to wish you all a happy May the Fourth day! May the force be with you as you navigate your Thursday afternoons! In this blog, I want to share with you all what I will be up to now that our grant from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD), our primary funding source for OMOD, has officially ended:

Social Media. Something I probably enjoy a little too much will now dominate a sizable chunk of my work life. This includes continuing my self-appointed role of "Blog Manager" and also scheduling and publishing our daily Facebook and Twitter posts. I feel honored to fill the role once occupied by Austin Hughes, our previous social media expert. And one final note about all things blog: we are always open to guest contributions to our blog, so if you have a piece about arts and disability or your participation in one of our programs, or would like to write a piece, please contact me and we'll find a space in our blog schedule to publish it!

Open Mic. As my co-worker April Sullivan devotes more time to our expanding Veterans Services and Artworks programs, I will head up the VSA side of the monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books, playing the part of co-host alongside Laura Perna of CTD's Pen 2 Paper writing competition, signing up performers as they arrive, and occasionally demo-ing the features of my new power wheelchair (see below). Our next open mic is Saturday, May 20th, 7:00-9:00pm. I hope to see you all there!


VSA Texas @ Library Live! I am excited to announce this quarterly concert series at the Carver Branch will resume this September. My role in this series will be booking the bands, working with the library to schedule show dates and promote the series, and emceeing each show. I cannot be happier to bring this much-needed opportunity to local musicians with disabilities, especially to our open mic regulars looking to step up their live performances. If you yourself are a musician with a disability or if you play in a group with one or more musicians with disabilities, please email me at eric@vsatx.org for an application form!

Michael Tidmore and the Rollers performing at our first Library Live event this past January

OMOD. I could never forget OMOD! OMOD will continue to thrive, albeit in a limited fashion. In addition to promoting our speakers to conference and other event hosts, which we will do through our new website set to go live later this month, we will also hold monthly meetings – much like Toastmasters but OMOD style – in Austin for our speakers to present new stories, get constructive feedback, and seek local speaking opportunities. And, at least once a year, we hope to facilitate our usual six-week writing workshop for new and continuing OMOD speakers followed by a showcase for friends, family, and community members. So be sure to stay tuned for more great events and opportunities from OMOD!

A group photo from our 2nd Annual OMOD Showcase reveals a solid lineup of 16 speakers with a wide range of disabilities; we have more than doubled our pool of trained speakers since then.

And that's about it! I look forward to continuing my journey with VSA Texas and seeing what new creative opportunities I can bring to the disability community in Austin and beyond!