On the occasion of the International Day of People with Disabilities, Mosaiko.gr had the pleasure to chat with artist and educator at the IDEAL School of Manhattan Timothy Lomas (http://www.theidealschool.org) and founder of SKEP Athina Kritikou (http://www.skep.gr.) Timothy lead a workshop for a mixed group of students with and without disabilities last June, a program organized by the Onassis Cultural Center and SKEP, with the support of the U.S. Embassy.
How did you start working with children and people with disabilities? What was the motivation?
Athina Kritikou: During my life I came to realize that 10% of the population is both invisible and excluded by the other 90%. Having realized that, it was impossible for me to turn my back. I decided that something should be done in order to create a society of equal rights and opportunities, where all people will feel accepted and useful without discriminations. Since 2008, I founded SKEP – Association of Social Responsibility for Children and Youth, and focused on the ways society will deconstruct stereotypes of prejudice, bias and indifference to overcome discrimination of people with disability.
Timothy Lomas: I started working with students of differing abilities in full when I accepted a job at the IDEAL School and Academy in New York City about 6 1/2 years ago. I already had about 20 years of experience teaching art both in the U.S. and internationally. I was drawn to the IDEAL School's mission of inclusion and social justice where the full identities of all students are accepted while promoting academic excellence and creative leadership. I currently teach about 150 students all across the spectrum of varying physical and mental abilities, it is certainly the most diverse community that I have ever worked with, and I get to be their art teacher to inspire and ignite their creativity. It is an honor, a challenge, and an incredibly rewarding experience.
What has been the greatest challenge you have faced in your work in this area?
Athina Kritikou: The greatest challenge so far has been to make people want to listen to you. Then educate them in thinking and acting differently towards disability. Both disability and inclusion are topics feared by the general public. Our work begins at familiarizing people on issues of disability, raising awareness and promoting social inclusion for all. Following that initial sensitization, comes the comprehension and understanding of the situation. Recognizing a problem is the beginning of engaging in providing solutions for it.
Timothy Lomas: I think that the challenge lies in meeting each student at his or her level of ability while giving them the needed support and scaffolding so that they can experience growth and success. The great thing about teaching art is that. For the most part, it is an open-ended experience. You know that the project is a success when you have a wide variety of outcomes that all stem from the same concept.
Each of you has many years of experience in this field. Have you seen the impact of your work? Have you seen change in awareness of the general public, in access for people with disabilities?
Athina Kritikou: Our mission has been to reshape attitudes towards disability by educating students and a wider public through experiential learning, motivational campaigns and joint activities.
Since 2008, more than 21.000 students and youth with disabilities (physical, intellectual, sensory) from 252 mainstream schools, special schools and social institutions have participated in the experiential-interactive workshops organized by SKEP. Our main objective remains the interactive cooperation between students and youth with disabilities aiming at building relations.
Timothy Lomas: Yes, I believe that we have come so far and I see that we still have so far to go. There is a wonderful quote by the cellist Pablo Casals. He was in his eighties or nighties and was asked why he still practiced his cello every day and he replied "I think I'm making progress." Awareness and change is like that both on a personal and much broader scale within society. It's not a destination where you arrive and say "There, my work is done!" It is an evolutionary journey.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work for you personally?
Athina Kritikou: Our work has many rewarding aspects. We get to meet and interact with many people such as teachers, professors, parent associations of mainstream and special education schools, university students and the general population that participate in our interactive programs. However the most rewarding group we work with are children and youth with disabilities (motor, sensory, intellectual) and students from primary and secondary mainstream education schools. Interacting with those two groups is what makes our work unique.
Timothy Lomas: I had to think on this for a bit because there are so many. You always meet the most amazing people in doing this kind of work; committed people who are very compassionate and generous of spirit. Then there is always the accomplishments of my students, seeing a mural or exhibition come to fruition. I also loved working with the U.S. Department of State's "Arts Envoy" program in Turkey and Greece and seeing my own non-profit, The Global Children's Art Programme (glocap.org), grow and succeed.
You partnered with Onassis Cultural Center last summer for an arts program – is there a highlight from that experience?
Athina Kritikou: Our experience from last year's partnership at the Onassis Cultural Center was a truly rewarding one. We were honored to work with a group of such talented and unique individuals. Still, the most amazing part of the arts program, were the children. Most children were not acquainted before hand and got together for the first time on the initial day. For us, the highlight of this experience was how a group of children with different abilities, began as strangers and during the course of the week, managed to come together, form relationships, work as a team, have fun with each other and create a wonderful, colorful exhibition at the end of the program. During the course of the week, participants that began as shy and silent, managed to overcome their initial fear and hesitation and finally changed their attitude towards disability.
Timothy Lomas: Yes, many thanks to the U.S. Embassy for setting up this event between SKEP (The Association of Social Responsibility for Children and Youth), the Onassis Cultural Center, and myself, It was such an overwhelmingly successful experience on so many levels and my first creative project in Greece. The students were amazing in their enthusiasm and openness. None of us had known each other before. On that first day we were a room full of strangers and by the end of the week we had created an incredible exhibition of artworks and made new relationshipsI hope that this will be one of many such events to promote inclusion and equity for people of different abilities.
What is the most needed change or assistance in each country – U.S. and Greece – to improve the lives of children with disabilities?
Athina Kritikou: One of the most difficult aspects of diversity is not diversity itself, but the negative and indifferent stance taken by members of society.Research regarding disabilities conducted in the European Union states that the absence of awareness and educational campaigns for students:
• Perpetuates stereotypes and prejudices
• Strengthens discrimination and exclusion
Timothy Lomas: I believe that it is so important to have more events like the "Art Without Limits" workshop at the OCC and to have institutions like The IDEAL School where students of varying abilities have the opportunity to learn and create side-by-side. Too often people are segregated and are labeled and put into boxes as being somehow "lesser than". We need to stand up for each other and see that each individual is a person of value and worth and has something to contribute. In doing so we all benefit by a more egalitarian and compassionate society.