Sensory art opens the doors to new experiences for disabled people

A smiling woman supports a young man with complex communication needs to create a work of art

Creative activities are fantastic for opening doors to new experiences, and can be a great way for people with complex communication needs to express themselves, make choices and explore stimulating sensory materials whilst creating. It can help relax behaviours and open up interactions with other people too.

As a multimedia artist with a background in textiles, I was really excited to work with Sense in developing a series of workshops to explore how sensory sculpture and textiles could be used to support people with complex communication needs.

Making art accessible

A woman with sensory impairments in supported by a woman to make works of art at a tableI’m really interested in exploring art that can appeal to all the senses, and not just something that’s purely visual. With these workshops, I was excited to further explore making sensory art. Not only would it be useful for my own practice, but the role it could play in developing more engaging and accessible workshops for people with sensory impairments and their support workers was something I was keen to explore.

My own work is often formed of multiple pieces joined together to create larger sculptural forms, and I decided to use this concept for the workshops, with each individual’s work combining at the end of the series to create a larger collaborative piece.

Small adaptations to the arts make a big impact

A smiling woman with sensory impairments holds pieces of curled coloured paper in her hand.

For some participants with limited movement or motor skills, certain intricate making techniques weren’t possible. So I developed a range of techniques for different abilities, including upscaling details – such as holes for threading and materials for weaving – creating more accessible activities.

When working with people with visual impairments, it’s really important to consider not only colour, but contrast. With this in mind, I made sure light-coloured materials were on a dark background, and introduced high-contrast colours to the making process.

The key to the success of the workshops was being ready to adapt throughout the sessions. Being flexible and experimental throughout the sessions was not only important, but also exciting! Participants created unexpected works that came from their own decision making and preferences, and this could only have happened with a certain level of flexibility and openness during the sessions.

The participants and support workers were great at trying new things, testing different options and having fun whilst exploring materials and sensory sculptures.

The sessions didn’t come without challenges, and encouraging all participants to engage could be tricky at times. But trying a wide range of techniques and different introductory methods would result in finding activities that participants engaged with and enjoyed.

One participant in particular, who had shown limited engagement with many techniques, really enjoyed the process of threading materials and ended up making the largest piece of the whole series of workshops!
An incredibly rewarding part of the workshops was seeing the participants engage with processes, take enjoyment from them and sometimes calm moods or change behaviours.

Each person is different

A young man looks holds orange and blue transparent plastic up to the light

As an artist, a key learning for me from these workshops, was that success could be completely different from participant to participant. For one person it may have been making a whole piece, or even a series of works. For others, it may have simply been their gradual willingness to begin to touch the materials.

This became really apparent to me when I was observing one participant who was tactile defensive and reluctant to touch materials. I left a range of materials laid out in front of him throughout the session, and eventually he chose to reach out and touch one particular material. This then progressed to him holding it in his hand, and gradually begin to manipulate it further.

For some participants this would have seemed small, but as his support workers explained to me, this was a huge step for him. His support worker then went on to interact further with him through hand movements, again something he was often reluctant to do.

This is a great demonstration of why the continuous availability of creative activities is so important, because it not only opens doors to physical making experiences, but also to the interaction between individuals socially.

The workshops resulted in some fantastic, exciting, fun work and some great experiences and involvement in the process.

An exhibition of the art created in these workshops will be on display at TouchBase Pears from February to April 2018.

Find out more about the arts practice of Ursula Rose Rae.

How people with sensory impairments experienced the magic of painting with light

Author: Ursula Rose Rae

Ursula Rose Rae is a multi-media artist with a background in textiles. Her practice is grounded in an exploration of textiles skills, exploring sculptural forms and installations that surround people to create experiential and imaginative environments.

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