Towards a colorful society with art-based communities

People with intellectual disabilities often live in social isolation. How can they participate in society with more equal footing, so they can lead a more autonomous life? “Art-based” communities have the potential to be an important step towards social justice for people with intellectual disabilities.

voor schilderdoek

Equality for all

Anja Zimmermann is a lecturer in Art Therapy. She’s also a researcher at the research center “Ethics of connecting with people with intellectual disabilities”.  Her PhD research entitled “Social Justice for People with Intellectual Disabilities through Art-Based Communities” studies how art projects and art studios can be used to increase social inclusion by fostering equality. Art can connect people, she says.

This subject has a special place in her heart. “As an art therapist, I’ve had 20 years experience working with people with intellectual disabilities. While doing my Master in Humanistic Studies, I experienced what humanism can offer our profession. The question that kept coming back to me was: how can we, together, shape a just society for all?”

The decision to involve people with intellectual disabilities was made very early on. “In a just society, everyone is included. But when walking down the street, I often thought: how many people with a disability do you actually see? I dream of a colorful society where everyone has the freedom to be who they are, to participate and is valued. Art can play an important role in this.”

I dream of a colorful society where everyone has the freedom to be who they are, to participate and is valued. Art can play an important role in this

What can art do?

Art has a remarkable effect on people with intellectual disabilities, says Zimmerman. “Art projects and art studios have been used since the 1930s to empower people who fall outside social norms. There have been studies where a child with a disability was given an art assignment. Through creating art they changed into a person with their own identity and authenticity. Art teaches people to communicate with each other. The differences between “normal” and “handicapped” become inconsequential. Everyone can move. Anyone can draw a line on paper. We all do it in our own way. Through this we learn from each other and contact is made.”

Art-based community

Learning from, and discovering each other: these are the foundations of the “art-based communities” that Zimmermann will study for the next 5 years. An art-based community is a learning community formed by people with intellectual disabilities, people from the public domain and art therapy students. For her research, Zimmermann has started from scratch. “I’m now gathering all the literature available on the subject. What’s already known about art-based communities, and what’s not? And if it’s effective for people with intellectual disabilities, how do they achieve this?” 

Next, Zimmermann will set up a case study of projects where artists with and without disabilities will work together. “I’ll study their collaboration, the social mechanisms and the role that their art plays in all of this”. From this comes the 3rd large study: of the community. My goal is to build a learning community where art therapy students, people from the public domain and people with disabilities come together. I hope to have a space in a museum one day a week where creating art together happens naturally. An open space filled with social interaction. And finally, to answer the big question: how can art-based communities advance social justice for people with intellectual disabilities?