An Interview with Dr. Alida Anderson: How the Arts Empower Those with Disabilities


Mercy Griffith

arts integration 1

Dear all,

As a literary magazine centered around celebrating student work, supporting diversity, and creating a space where all students feel welcome and accepted, AmLit seeks to recognize and support various groups of marginalized or underrepresented communities. On American University’s campus, the student body strives to ensure racial, ethnic, and economic equality; however, there is little focus on representing those with disabilities, despite the fact that disabilities affect humans of all races, social statuses, backgrounds, and nationalities. In an effort to understand how the arts can play a role in giving these communities a voice, I met with Dr. Alida Anderson, a professor in the School of Education, to discuss the benefits of arts integration in education for people with special needs and/or disabilities. 

Dr. Alida Anderson grew up in Washington, D.C., and, while she earned her undergraduate and masters degrees in New York and Illinois respectively, she returned to the DMV area, earning her PhD in special education from the University of Maryland. In grade school, Anderson experienced a robust arts curriculum interwoven with her content classes. However, she recognized that it is no longer the norm for schools to emphasize the arts. Regardless of the reasons for this shift, Anderson commented that reviving arts integration in our public education would provide channels through which students with disabilities could access content, channel their emotions, and communicate with others. Anderson defined arts integration as “the use of an art form (drama, dance, visual arts, etc.) in combination with teaching of a content area (math, science, social studies, language arts, etc.), in which there are content learning objectives in the art form as well as in the content area.” 

Anderson was not always interested in arts integration; she pursued her own visual art career in her undergraduate and early graduate studies. But, after taking a job at a preschool where she used visual arts to connect with children who engaged in atypical behavior, she began to see the benefits the arts had on children with learning or developmental differences. In addition to this experience, Anderson also took a job working with children with autism, many of whom were non-verbal. Through this experience, she witnessed students learn self-regulation and communication skills through sensory artistic techniques. The realization that the arts had the capacity to give a whole group of otherwise silenced people a voice inspired Anderson to shift her focus from her own art pursuits to furthering the field of arts integration research and practice.  

As we so deeply recognize here in the AmLit community, art is a powerful tool for expression, communication, and passion. When educators channel these aspects of the arts, students who struggle with the conventional approaches to academic content are able to thrive. When I asked Anderson how the arts can benefit those with disabilities, she responded, saying, “the arts give you access to helping kids engage in really deep learning, really deep thinking...and [these] are all things that you see in the Common Core.” As our public education system continues to rely on standardized testing as a main measurement for academic achievement, it is important that we equip our students with the skills they need to succeed, regardless of whether or not they have a disability; the arts allows us to do this. In addition, Anderson highlighted the ways in which art frees students from the confines of language. For both students who struggle speaking and for English language learners, art provides a platform through which students can share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. It is important for us to realize that just because a student may not be able to type their ideas in a five-paragraph essay does not mean they do not have deep, intellectual thoughts about the issue at hand. Educators must provide multiple means through which students can express mastery of content. 

Although content proficiency is a primary goal of schooling, Anderson also noted the immensely positive effect the arts have on the social-emotional development of children with disabilities and/or learning differences. The art community fosters a profound sense of belonging and acceptance, and the chance for students with disabilities to share their work, give and get feedback, and engage with other artists as equals is both empowering and freeing. Having a disability can immediately remove students from certain social situations, such as sports teams, the “cool” table at lunch, or even general education classes; but, the arts can transport students to a reality in which they can productively participate and authentically relate to others.  

After Dr. Anderson relayed all of the benefits of arts integration in our public schools to me, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “Well, why isn’t there more focus on this in our education system?!” Of course, there is a plethora of reasons: the arts cannot be assessed via a standardized test (therefore, obviously, they are not that important *eyeroll*), there is not a wide variety of scholarly studies supporting arts integration (although this field is growing!), the current political climate does not emphasize arts education in general (let alone arts integration), and not many teachers are trained in the arts (i.e., not everyone is qualified to successfully implement arts integration). Despite the obstacles, though, Anderson firmly believes that arts integration has the ability to meaningfully engage students, thereby keeping them in school and equipping them with the skills they need to be productive, influential members of society. 

And, the importance of the arts extends past the classroom. When asked how the arts benefits society as a whole, Anderson responded that 

“...the ways that arts integration really helps to connect dimensions of our community to each other is through that first person narrative that arts integration gives. Often times we think about how policies affect individuals; we think of things going from the outside in; but, in arts integration, you have the center being communities, and those messages go out to districts...Arts integration gives voice to the core of the community. And that has to have a direct influence on the greater areas...We want families and neighborhoods to feel like school is about them and for them, and I think arts integration has a way of doing that.” 

I left Dr. Anderson’s office with a deeper understanding of the importance of the arts in our education system and the ways in which art frees students with disabilities from the confines of their handicaps, whether mental or physical. I am so honored and privileged to be part of our AU community that values all human life, regardless of race, ethnicity, status, or wealth, and I challenge myself and my fellow peers to remember that those with disabilities belong to a minority community, yet they are often excluded from our day-to-day dialogue on acceptance and inclusion. Let us be pioneers in the push for the rights and recognition of those with disabilities; let us support arts integration in our schools (workplaces, too!), understanding that it is our duty to give voice to all members of marginalized communities. When we are able to hear all people equally, we will be one step closer to a fair and just society. 

As Dr. Anderson said at the conclusion of our talk, “it’s hard work to do research in this area,...but even though it’s hard does not mean we should stop trying to make it happen.”  

Thanks for reading!

Love to you all, 

Mercy