Arts Programming for Youth with Disabilities

The outstanding theater troupes, directors, dance companies, galleries and artists in New York may leave the humbling impression that art is for the experts. However, arts groups and teaching artists know that art is a hands-on activity, integral to self-expression, opening the mind to problem-solving and approaching new subjects. As such, the arts play a crucial role in educating the youth in the city, and are particularly valuable to children and teens with special needs.

While arts programs are often on the chopping block in public schools, art institutions offer a wide variety of educational programs and relationships between the institutions and both public and private schools in the city. MetroFocus and NYC-ARTS take a look at just a few of the arts programs available for disabled youth across the five boroughs of New York City.


The Miracle Project

This program for kids and teens with autism or other special needs allows them to express themselves through music, dance, acting, story and writing. Students in New York perform “I wanna know,” a musical work they created. Video courtesy of The Miracle Project.

A musical theater workshop for teenagers with autism, learning disabilities, special needs and their siblings, the Miracle Project is a 22-week long program that culminates in a performance. The project originated in California and began in Manhattan and Brooklyn last year.

“We want to create an environment of acceptance and we embrace and encourage the ideas of the kids,” explained Aaron Feinstein, the project director. “Teenagers with autism and developmental disabilities can be really stuck in themselves, and the ability to perform and show their passions and develop them in a group setting, it’s really powerful.”

Nancy Lawrence says her daughter Katie came out of her shell as a result of joining the program.

“It truly was a miracle project!” she said. “Katie loves musicals and dance but always refused to do any group activities. She wouldn’t go. She was too afraid.”

But when Katie heard that the Miracle Project was for people like her, she immediately wanted to join. Lawrence says the program has helped her daughter to overcome a lot of fears.

“There’s a cocoon there of understanding and acceptance,” she said.

And that’s just what the Miracle Project tries to do.

“We’re saying, ‘Be yourself, we’re going to embrace you as you,’ ” said Feinstein.

Information: For Brooklyn: or call (347) 528-4246. For 92nd Street Y in Manhattan: call (212) 415-5626.  Interview required.

Project Olé at Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana

Students from the NYC Department of Education’s District 75 School JM Rapport School for Career Development in the Bronx learn, rehearse and perform a piece inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Black Cat.” Video courtesy of Project Olé.

Project Olé is an approved vendor with the NYC Department of Education and works with students at PS 811 and the JM Rapport School, both District 75 schools for students with special needs in the Bronx, as well as at schools in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Dance and the arts help the students to focus and follow direction, said Jessica Wilt, director of arts education at Project Olé.

“I’ve seen kids who had a hard time communicating through words express themselves through dance,” she said. “They become more expressive and confident.”

And the students agree.

“I felt comfortable and safe,” said JM Rapport student Naquesha Venover.

“I learned that I can do anything that I put my mind and focus to, even dance,” said another student Mark Ianzo.

Information: or (212) 736-4499.

New Victory Theater Education for Kids and Families

New Victory teaching artists speak about their experiences with students, among them, a boy with special needs who participated in the educational program. Video courtesy of New Victory Theater.

The New Victory Theater serves youth of all ages and abilities. Through pre and post-performance workshops and school visits, the theater company teaches kids to understand and relate to characters and storytelling. The theater has a partnership with The Lexington School for the Deaf and District 75 schools in the NYC Department of Education. Both programs are based on the idea that through learning and understanding, theater and performance can be beneficial to all populations.

“We are looking to engage the students as artists,” said Courtney Boddie, director of education and school engagement at the New Victory. “Theater is a very powerful tool for developing character in multiple ways.”

At the Performing Arts Laboratory with the Lexington School for the Deaf, students see three performances and then work with teaching artists in theater workshops. They create their own performance and present it to their class.

Some student’s reactions from last year were collected by the teachers and teaching artists from New Victory.

“This experience was really amazing and helped me learn team work,” said Raymond.

“I learned that I could play a ‘hearing’ character by applying the performance techniques we learned and still use ASL [sign language] to communicate to the audience,” said Tyler.

Information: or (646) 223-3090.

Sundog Children’s Theatre

Sundog Theatre in Staten Island brings theater to schools all over the borough, serving kids with special needs and those without. Last year, they won a special grant from the Staten Island Arts Council to run a theater program for kids in grades 1 – 5 at two special education schools.

Kids in the Sundog Theatre residency interpreted books by children's author Eric Carle. Photo by Christine Battaglia.

Christine Battaglia is the arts and education manager at Sundog. She said that along with learning how to dance and perform, the kids learned self awareness and how to focus.

“They don’t realize that they’re learning, that’s the biggest thing,” she said. “The kids learned to work with each other and all of that is so applicable to real life.”

“The results were almost tangible,” she added.

Beth Clancey’s 13-year-old son Ian, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 9, was “profoundly impacted” by his experience with Sundog.

“He had a lot of socialization problems and at Sundog he really found his niche,” she said.”I feel strongly that Sundog really brought him up socially. He learned things like impromptu humor and now he brings people into the fold that way.”

Information: (718) 816-5453

The Museum Explorers Club, part of ArtAccess at the Queens Museum of Art

Watch a report on the story of ArtAccess and the programming available at the Queens Museum of Art. Video courtesy of Art Beyond Sight.

Museum Explorers Club is a free program designed for families affected by autism. Within the ArtAccess program, which launched in 1983 as Please Touch, an arts education program for the visually impaired, the club is a nationally reproduced model program, said Michelle Lopez, manager of ArtAccess programs and autism initiatives. Kids and teens with special needs visit the museum on Saturdays with their families and learn how to interact with art, and with others.

“We provide a great experience for the kids where they feel good and there’s the power of creativity and they leave with a sense of accomplishment,” said Lopez. “We want kids to feel they can explore and be creative.”

John Paravalos paints at the Queens Museum ArtAccess program. Photo by Jessica Paravalos.

Jessica Paravalos of Whitestone, Queens has been attending the programs with her three kids for the past couple of years.

“I love everything about it. It’s a superior program that provides a sensory experience and social interaction aspects,” she said. “They reward the kids. They say they’re proud of the students’ artwork.”

Paravalos’ son John, 5, is on the autism spectrum. When he first started he wouldn’t even hold the paintbrush, but now he paints and is proud of his work, she said. Her other son Emmanuel,6, also has ASD. When he first began the program he would only draw cars or tanks.

“They embraced it, whatever the project was, they let him put a car in it. After a few months, he became more creative. He started to pull away from the car,” she said. “He was learning to expand. It was so important for him because he’s very much fixated on things.”

Information: or (718) 592-9700 ext. 130


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