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Breaking Ground 100 - Disability Arts Access in Rural Tennessee: A program of Friends Life Community

by Waverly Ann Harris, Executive Director, Friends Life Community
a group of adults with and without disabilities standing behind a table with art supplies posing for a photo
Group photo of seven DAART participants from Carroll County, two Teaching Artists, Sarah Edwards and Candace Gooch, and two volunteers, Arianna Whaley and Sel Montgomery

Walking in for the first time must have been scary. As a 26-year-old with autism, it was not facing the unknown that took courage. It was facing the expected rejection that often happens in new places with new people. Similar experiences had often led to bullying, being asked to leave, and embarrassment. However, there are limited opportunities in rural Tennessee for individuals with intellectual disabilities to find community and belonging outside the school system. When John’s family learned about a new program for young adults with disabilities to access arts in Carroll County, they decided it was worth the risks.

Within minutes of arriving, John’s shoulders began to relax and his eyes got brighter. A smile spread across his face. This was his first time participating in a performing arts class, yet he seemed to come alive. He spoke up clearly and was able to express himself to others.  He experienced belonging through acceptance and connection with peers.

John was one of 12 participants in Disability Arts Access in Rural Tennessee (DAART), a program where people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) meet every month and learn to express and advocate for themselves. Through different arts activities, they connect with themselves, their peers, and the larger community through the common language of art.

DAART is a program of Friends Life Community, in partnership with the Dixie Performing Arts Center in Huntingdon, Tennessee. It brings unique opportunities to adults with disabilities and helps them grow through the arts. Huntingdon is in rural Carroll County where, like many rural counties, there are few services after high school.

This effort began in 2018, led by Carroll County native Sarah Edwards, now performing arts specialist at Friends Life Community. It features partnerships with 10 local teaching artists, and has trained more than 50 volunteers from Bethel College. The volunteers ensure that more people in Carroll County are able to include individuals with disabilities into current and future arts programs.

“DAART has been the most important and impactful thing I have done in my professional career,” said Sarah Edwards. “The Dixie Performing Arts Center changed my life when I was growing up in Carroll County. It gave me a voice and a place to belong. Now, to have the opportunity to facilitate the creative process with individuals who have never participated in arts classes before is a true honor. To see their own excitement when they feel heard and seen, sometimes for the first time, continues to inspire me in this field that I love and believe in.”

Developing art skills is not often on the list of priorities for young adults with disabilities. Of the 12 participants in DAART, only two had been in an art class before. Most young adults complete high school and transition programs with a focus on employment in the community. Yet many adults with disabilities age out of the school system lacking the basic skills required for inclusive employment, like confidence, self-expression, and self-advocacy.

For individuals with disabilities to participate in community-based activities and employment, leaders in the community must create opportunities for people with I/DD to flourish. Participation in the arts is a powerful way to break through barriers and create connections between people that go deeper than verbal communication and surface understanding.

Through DAART, participants learned 10 different types of art, including poetry, dance, songwriting, design, and pottery, all led by local teaching artists.  Classes met once a month, working toward a community showcase in May. Each teaching artist was trained by Friends Life Community to help the participants experience the art form being presented, and to develop skills that will lead to greater self-advocacy. Through this experience, the teaching artists and the participants gained a better understanding of each other, resulting, we hope, in opportunities that are more inclusive in the future. 

Program Expansion: Advocacy Through the Arts

This program is expanding! The Council began an Advocacy Through the Arts grant with Friends Life Community in November. The grant provides funds to offer art classes for Tennesseans with I/DD – including continuing DAART in Carroll County – and then share the art on a statewide self-advocacy tour. Be on the lookout for more information in the coming year about an event near you!

For more information about Friends Life Community’s programming, DAART/Advocacy Through the Arts, or how to increase advocacy through the arts in your own community, please reach out to us at admin@friendslife.org or call 615-730-9370.