Exhibit unveils talents of disabled students

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The Miami Herald

March 4, 2002

Ana Veciana-Suarez

Walk into the Mailman Center for Child Development in the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, and you’ll feast on dozens of framed artworks by Miami-Dade County Public School students. You’ll marvel at the texture, the whimsy, the vision of the watercolors, etchings and collages.

What you won’t know from the plaque accompanying each work is that these artists are disabled. And the staff that has put this permanent collection together wants that morsel of information to stay that way, in the background where it does not disturb the art.

”It’s a wonderful message for the families that come here,” says Paula Lalinde, Mailman’s training coordinator. “This is

ARTIST: Nathalie LePorte, an eighth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, has three artworks hanging in the Mailman Center.

ARTIST: Nathalie LePorte, an eighth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, has three artworks hanging in the Mailman Center.

what we should be doing, showing them off, and the brightness and cheerfulness make for a nice environment.”

The Mailman Center is a nine-story building that houses research, training, and services for children with developmental, behavioral, learning and neurological disorders. In 1996, while putting together the center’s brochure, someone thought it might be a good idea to put a child’s artwork on the cover. If a picture paints a thousand words, surely one by a child with a disability would state a mission eloquently.

The staff found just the right piece, by an autistic child, at a student exhibit at Biscayne Garden Elementary. And they discovered something else: about 25 other works that should be exhibited in the permanent collection.

The center hosted a spring art opening for the children and their families. The children received $20 gift certificates and plenty of applause. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. ”We were giving a voice to these children,” says Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, a pediatrician and associate director. “It was a recognition of value for their work.”

With the encouragement of Dr. R. Rodney Howell, chairman of pediatrics, the art search has become an annual event. Teachers in about 50 schools select the best student work and submit those to a five-member jury. Last year, fewer than 35 were chosen out of about 120 submitted. The students range from 3 to 21 years old, from very physically impaired to learning disabled. Some are typical children’s drawings; others, such as a pencil drawing of the Virgin Mary, are incredibly elaborate. Matted and framed, the pieces become part of the Mailman’s ArtAbilities Collection, which decorates the center’s first three floors. In June, the students and their families are invited to a gallery opening.

”We get six or seven people per child, and they are so very excited about it,” Lalinde says. “There’s a lot of pride and appreciation by the parents and the community representatives. It’s certainly the best day of my year.”

For the children, it is much-needed validation. Ray Azcuy, Miami-Dade’s district supervisor for art education, says it gives his students a sense of “Hey, I’m good. Somebody has noticed.”

”A lot of these kids are singled out for not doing well in academics or for their physical limitations,” Azcuy explains. “But none of these things stop them from doing art, from creating. At Mailman, their talent is being celebrated very publicly.”

Nathalie LaPorte, an eighth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in north Miami-Dade, has three pieces hanging at the Mailman Center. Born prematurely at 6 months and now with a learning disability and blind in one eye, the 13-year-old has her heart set on becoming a professional artist, thanks to the recognition from her teachers.

”I can’t even begin to explain what it means to her,” says her mother, Sonia Samuel Bean. “Nathalie loves her art. Wherever I go with her, she has a piece of paper and pencil, and she draws everywhere. This is truly a gift.”

Last year, encouraged by the art program’s success, Brosco, who has a PhD in history with a specialty in the history of disabilities, visited Riviera Middle School in west Miami-Dade to propose a plan to special education kids as well as honor students. He wanted them to think about how they could make a disabled person’s life better.

Their responses came by image and written word. Some were simple: ”I can make a difference by . . . helping them find a classroom or an address. . .” Others turned to the practical — one student suggested lowering the elevator buttons so people in wheelchairs would not have to struggle.

The students’ work was then used by professional artist Xavier Cortada to create a collaborative mural that included a timeline of the history of disabilities, exhibited in January at the Casa Grande Cultural Center in Little Havana. The timeline tracked the history of how U.S. policy toward the disabled has gradually changed, from ignorance at the turn of the century with few, if any, programs, to sterilization laws in the 1920s, and finally to a grass-roots movement for the rights of the disabled that began in the 1950s. In the 1940s, for instance, no federal funds were budgeted for the disabled. Now, the federal government spends about $40 billion on education, health and research.

”This is the story of really good news,” explains Brosco, who hopes to make the history of disability art into a traveling exhibit. “It’s an important message to get across to students and families who might be disappointed and frustrated by what there is out there. It also teaches them that they can make a difference.”

The collaboration brought together two groups of students who might not have interacted on campus. Lourdes Bravo, a special education art teacher at Riviera Middle and one of the several instructors who worked on the timeline program, tells how the honors English students learned about different disabilities and what it’s like to travel about in a wheelchair.

”There’s more awareness now of who these individuals really are and what they have to offer,” Bravo says. “We hope they carry that awareness into high school and into adulthood. I’ve already seen it around school. Maybe it’s not a friendship, but it’s interaction. We need a lot more steps, but we’ve already taken that first step.”

For more information about the art exhibit, visit www.cortada.com or http://pediatrics.med.miami.edu