As part of an occasional series, we will be learning more about the Bartol Foundation’s board members and teaching artists. Roger Ideishi is Program Director of Occupational Therapy at Temple University. He specializes in working with arts and community-based organizations to develop programs for families and children.
On Thursday, February 15, Roger will be co-teaching a Bartol workshop with Charlie Miller, Deputy Director of Art-Reach. Register for this workshop here: http://bit.ly/2DzuiXd.
Can you tell me a bit about how your work as an occupational therapist led you to working with arts organizations?
Working out in the community or working in schools with other occupational therapists, one of the things that we felt was impactful was creative expression. Children seemed to attach themselves very naturally to the creative process. And so, we just started integrating that creative process into the classroom, working with the teachers, working with therapists.
Back in the early 2000s, we happened to come across a dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet. She was interested in how movement impacted children with developmental disabilities, and she partnered with us to develop a program. When we started doing this program in schools, we began to notice strengths in kids with developmental disabilities that we never saw before. It was very surprising to the teachers and therapists that this experience—dancing, movement experience brought by a professional dancer—really seemed to capture the imagination and exploration of these kids. And we started to pursue that.
This connection between the classroom and the community we felt was really important. That’s a little different than what we often see in classroom experiences for kids who have developmental disabilities. You don’t really see much strong classroom–community connection. So, that’s what sparked this, and then once we started doing that it just snowballed across the country, and a lot of people were asking about the example that was going on in Philadelphia. The Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian reached out to us. Having that connection really brought a lot of validity to the work that we were doing.
Why do you believe that it’s important for teaching artists to learn how to adapt their practice to people with disabilities?
I think teaching artists naturally have the skills to do that adaptation. But it’s important that teaching artists have some training because it’s such a broad population. Even as a practicing therapist, I still encounter situations where I’m a little stumped and I need a team around me to help me problem-solve. I think that’s an important message for teaching artists—to recognize that there are lots of people out there who can support them when they’re in new situations and may need some collaborative problem solving. And then to also understand the broad scope of what they may encounter if they haven’t had a lot of experience working with diverse populations with disabilities. Giving teaching artists these resources is one of the most important parts; it helps bring a greater breadth and depth to the work they’re already doing.
What’s been the most rewarding moment from your time working with arts organizations?
I remember the first time we did a sensory-friendly Nutcracker ballet with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the feedback we were getting from the families was that this was a first-time experience for their entire family. What families often tell us is that they have split families, where one person stays home with the family member who has a disability, and that they rarely have these community experiences as a whole family.
At the Nutcracker, some of these families were walking out of the theatre just so emotional because they enjoyed the show together; they saw the joy in each other, being a part of the show and having that shared experience. To me, that’s just so touching and so moving to hear the impact that had on families. Parents even said that this was the first time that they didn’t feel like they were being judged, or that they had to be on alert like, “Is my child going to do something that’s going to upset other people?”
Being in an environment where everyone understands and adapts, welcomes, and accepts everybody for who they are, these parents felt validated. Having arts organizations be welcoming and supportive of individuals with diverse abilities and disabilities means a lot to these families. When I hear that feedback from families, it just gets to me that we’re actually meeting a need. I think that’s probably the most rewarding experience that I continue to have. With every initiative that I develop, I hear the same thing from families over and over again.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think it’ll be good for society in general if more of these kinds of initiatives develop, as we have more teaching artists who reach out to these individuals and these families. We’re slowly, fundamentally changing society.
To learn more about Roger’s work, visit https://cph.temple.edu/rs/faculty/roger-i-ideishi.
Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.