Art Integrated Learning Environments for Students with Disabilities

by Maggie Upchurch, Art Education

Abstract: My research presents personal accounts of art-integrated learning environments and the positive impact they can have on students with disabilities. This paper discusses the importance of art practice accessibility in schools as a source of reference for other areas of study. I will elaborate on the executive functioning and critical thinking skills students can gain from responding to art prompts that encourage them to base their work on personal experience or feelings. I will highlight ways that art practice has and can act as an outlet to regulate emotions for students of all backgrounds. Meanwhile, the historically subjective and growth-oriented environment commonly presented in art-learning classrooms can help students gain a stronger sense of acceptance. More specifically, I will expound upon artists who are known to have strengthened their physical mobility, regulated their mental health, and managed their autism through art practice. Then, I shift the lens of focus from artist to student to consider how student illustrations can present a desire to be viewed as “normal,” and not labeled otherwise in society. For students with disabilities, this paper highlights how regular exposure to and experience with can help them manage and advance their overall functionality and disability management.

executive functioning skills, growth environment, art integration, critical thinking, acceptance, disability management, labels, society

Art education acts as an avenue for students to have self-expression and a source of reference in all other areas of study. When students experience an integrated visual hands-on curriculum through the arts, they are equipped with the knowledge of how to create visual aids for expression and referral. Students who are faced with critical thinking methods about how to present their art are also actively stimulating their brain, motor functions, and learning methods, which they can use in other classes. Students with disabilities can gain a strong sense of belonging in the arts because of the overall nature of inclusion and general equity that art education presents.

While art education can provide an outlet for self-expression for all students, it can significantly benefit students with disabilities, especially with regard to emotional regulation and disability management. Students with disabilities are often plagued with intellectual obstacles; engagement in art activities offers them an impersonal way to express and regulate their emotions. As a student with disability, I wonder how art education has impacted my lifestyle and functionality, and in this paper I analyze the ways I have navigated my learning experiences after my disability.

Lsabino (2021) illustrates the significant impact of art in special education through sharing stories of students with disabilities and their artwork. The author portrays the story of Georgia O’Keeffe and how she managed her depression through painting nature and later in life her state of being blind through sculpting. This is a great example of the opportunities and hope that someone with a disability can gain through exploring and developing their artistic ability. O’Keefe was able to navigate her disability and regulate her mental health through sculpting and painting, respectively.

Art expression allows students to take charge of their circumstances and turn them into something educational and meaningful in their lives while it also promotes relaxation and problem solving. Perkins School for the Blind (2023) provides us with many examples of how art offers students with disabilities a creative way to develop new methods of expression and improve their overall functionality and disability management: “But we’re not just talking about creative self-expression. The very process of creating also builds vital life skills like communication, socializing and even physical mobility!” The inclusive nature art education permits students of all backgrounds to exercise their social skills, communication, and behavior around others. For some students, it can also act as physical exercise and a catalyst to rebuild and strengthen parts of their body that need attention. Lsabino (2021) highlights these benefits in describing a specific artist: “Peter Longstaff is a farmer turned painter. He creates incredible paintings of nature, and he does it all with his feet! Longstaff has a congenital anomaly that caused him to be born with no arms”. Peter was able to find a haven for expression through art while strengthening his feet and managing his disability.

Another common problem that students with disabilities face are the labels that people associate with their disability, which set them apart from what is considered “normal.”  Andriana and Evans (2020) explain the obstacles that students with learning disabilities face and show that the differentiation between a “regular” student and a student with a disability is proven to be very disheartening to those with learning disabilities, resulting in a lack of motivation in the classroom. In addition, they present several different examples of students with disabilities to highlight how being allotted different classes than the rest of their peers has impacted their motivation and mental health; these students presented their aspiration to participate in learning environments that are attendant to their disability but also to their desire to feel accepted and make friends (Andriana & Evans, 2020). Such research reinforces the perspective of students with disabilities pertaining to the common perception that they are “less” able to create meaningful relationships. As Andriana and Evans (2020) show, art can help students with disabilities present their feelings of denial and facilitate friendships through the discussion of shared feelings.

Lsabino (2021) highlights the sense of inclusiveness that art education offers students of all backgrounds, writing “No disability can exclude a student from participating because there is always a way for inclusion”. Art education issues students with disabilities a safe place for self-expression and an environment of inclusiveness to nurture growth and experimentation. Art offers students who feel trapped by their desire to be treated as equal a place to make friendships and be accepted for who they are. Sills (2020) describes this sense when recounting an experience of a physically impaired student: “But when his face lit up in acceptance, it sparked a newfound confidence in me. It wasn’t just his approval of my costume, it was his approval of me as a person, as an actor”. This quote illustrates the joy the student gained from the sense of acceptance and inclusion she found within the arts, wearing a costume custom to her disability; her sentiments here suggest that she gained a sense of belonging and confidence she could not have gained in other areas of study/life (Sills, 2020). This promotes the idea that students with disabilities and access to art education are equipped with the ability to explore their artistic capacity, find meaningful relationships through art, and feel acknowledged for who they are.

Art integration is important for all students so they can use their artistic ability as a source of support but this support is especially vital for students with disabilities when navigating how to function in school environments. For me personally, I find myself referring to my artistic ability to stimulate my critical thinking in every area of my life. When faced with a broad art prompt, students are also faced with the task of creating meaning behind their art, whether that is  personal, educational, or impersonal. This meaning-making quest stimulates students’ brains to think of ways to make and portray their art, capturing just the right image. This process, in turn, equips students with the knowledge of how to create a visual aid associated with problem solving, which they can then use with the topic at hand and in other areas of study and life.

Zooming out, Silverstein and Layne (2020) highlight the effect that art integration in schools has on the lifestyles of students with disabilities. Silverstein and Layne (2020) write, “Students meet dual learning objectives when they engage in the creative process to explore connections between an art form and another subject area to gain greater understanding in both”. This quote stresses the benefit that art integration in schools has for students as a whole and especially for students with learning disabilities. In a case study prepared by Thomas (2018) on this topic, the author draws attention to the positive influence that art can have on stimulating and developing executive functioning and critical thinking skills. Thomas (2018) expresses that art class has historically presented a means to evolve executive functioning for students with specific learning disabilities and promotes the significance of art integration in schools, emphasizing methods to practice problem solving through art prompts. In sum, Thomas (2018) reinforces the idea that art integration can foster problem solving and critical thinking in all aspects of life.

After my traumatic brain injury, I have found that art-integrated learning environments based around growth and self-improvement have facilitated and stimulated my brain in more productive ways than that of an average learning environment relative to my recovery. Malley (2014), in her work Students with Disabilities and the Core Arts Standards, reflects on the Core Arts Standards in place for students overall and specifically for students with disabilities, offering more context for how art integration can drastically improve a student’s feeling of inclusion and motivation to further assess their work when they are in the midst of a growth environment. Malley (2014) presents the stance that students can develop their intellect and exercise their voice comfortably through the arts, and the core standards she presents depict how art integration can allow students to fully express their thoughts in an ideal environment while advancing their cognitive and executive functioning skills. Lsabino (2021) introduces Stephen Wiltshire as an autistic artist with a focus on drawing panoramic cityscapes and emphasizes how he uses his art practice to assist his focus and critical thinking skills. Wiltshire is a great example of someone who would be widely considered disabled but found the ability to stimulate focus exercises through creating art in growth environments.

In conclusion, art education can have an extremely beneficial impact on students with disabilities and offer them plenty of different opportunities to engage their artistic ability to better other areas of their lives. Creating art promotes executive functioning skills, motor movements, and critical thinking skills, and provides a source of reference for students as they navigate their worlds through the process of expression through visual aid. Art also offers an outlet for students to regulate their emotions and develop their voice. Ultimately, art can create a sense of comfortability, reinforcing the idea that all students are unique and uniqueness is the essence of the beauty behind the art that students create.


Andriana, E., & Evans, D. (2021). Voices of students with intellectual disabilities: Experiences of transition in “inclusive schools” in Indonesia. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49(3), 316–328.

Lsabino. (2021, April 20). The importance of art in special education. Education Alternatives.

Sills, N. (2020). Personal experiences of disability and the performing arts. Canadian Music Educator, 61(2), 18- 21.

Silverstein, L. B., & Layne, S. (2020, January 14). What is arts integration? The Kennedy Center.

Thomas, B. A. (2018). Potential impacts of art education learning environments for students whom experience specific learning disabilities in the development of executive functioning: A Case Study. [Master’s thesis, Moore College of Art and Design].

Malley, S. M. (2014). Students with disabilities and the Core Arts Standards.

Perkins School for the Blind. (2023, August 3). What inclusive, accessible arts education looks like.

Citation Style: APA