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Celebrate Differences by Sharon Lea, CAA Professor

Just imagine a world where everyone is held up high towards the sun and given all the opportunities to be the best they can be.  Just imagine a world where everyone is celebrated for who they are and given every advantage to live a rich, fulfilling life.  Imagine a world where differences are celebrated with excitement and wonder.  Everyday CAA gives this warmth of the sun to adult students with differing abilities, through a liberal arts education and exciting opportunities they might not have had in the past. 

My first experience with CAA came when I walked into rehearsal at Pioneer High School for the production of Greasy Hairspray.  CAA puts on yearly productions, giving students opportunities to perform in the community and in turn, gives the community opportunities to see our students work together as a team and thrive in the spotlight.

I had not worked with this population before and I must admit I wasn’t sure exactly what would be expected of me. As soon as I walked in the door, I knew I found a unique and special place.  Adult students were on stage, of all abilities.  Excitement was in the air.  Bright yellow Greasy Hairspray tee shirts were being sorted by size for each student.  Singing and dancing filled the space.  It was not a place of apprehension, but a place filled with support and love. 

It was a place where there were no limits and each student had a gift that simply needed sunshine and a little time.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced and I knew I wanted to help in whatever way possible.  Now as a staff member, I am wholly committed to doing all I can to promote and support CAA, an amazing organization. 

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When my daughter came into our lives, we were overjoyed. She was perfect! 

Slowly, we realized she was lagging in the development milestones.

So our (2nd) pediatrian showed us the ‘obvious’ signs of her development delays.

We needed help for her – but we weren’t sure what to ask for, or even who to ask.

Fast forward to today, and I find myself sitting in the entryway or in the Library at CAA surrounding by experts with personal experience, and I still don’t know how ask for help.

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When I’m out in the community and I tell people we run a College of the Arts for adults with special needs, a common response that I get is, “So you are training them for a vocation in the arts?” Certainly a valid question, and I find it an interesting challenge to convey the message that we are truly about learning for the sake of learning.  Lifelong education. Exploring and furthering your skills and interests with other like-minded peers who have similar interests. 

I have a sister with a disability, and it was truly interesting to watch enter into the world of adulthood.  When I believe she was in that post-secondary time right after high school, she had a job coach for the summer, and she was so very happy cleaning the desks of the local high schools to get ready for the next year.  Her coach was with her, and she seemed to be having a blast.  I was so happy for her to have an engaged experience and to be helping in the community.

I soon learned that the job coach was cut due to budget cuts.  I moved away to attend my own college, and I sensed the distress and despair of becoming an adult without the needed supports to continue to be a viable, happy, and productive citizen.  It’s been highly distressing to observe as a sister.

Fast forward 20 years and myself and my business partner, Pamela Lindsay, have founded an Innovative College of the Arts for Students with Disabilities.  It’s amazing; joyful; refreshing.  I simply and truly love it.  College of Adaptive Arts has 8 Schools of Instruction in the Arts, Health & Wellness.  Adults simply sign up for the classes that they are interested in taking.  Each class is one hour long. Learn, Create, Rinse, and Repeat. 

I often revisit the word training in my mind.  I’ve seen adults with disabilities trained to pick up trash, clean tables, shred papers.  From my perspective, it seems that ‘typical folks’ on a whole can do these jobs better than a person with a disability.  However, when you give a person with a disability a microphone and a stage, they have the ability to transform the audience’s experience in a way that I have rarely witnessed with ‘typical’ performers.  People often have told me that they ‘feel more alive’ after watching a College of Adaptive Arts performing troupe.

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A Mountain Mover

By Sharon Lea

I want to be a mountain mover
mountains hold people back
create walls of sadness

that hide so much truth and beauty 

I want to push and kick away boulders

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I want to talk about disability. What is disability and what does it mean to have one?

Not so many years ago, it was discovered that my feet sustained fractures, several in each one. They weren’t healing, so I was sent to a wheel chair. For one month, I went out only for doctor appointments. I didn’t consider myself disabled, just lonely.

My doctor must have sensed this because he prescribed CRO boots, a kind of cement shoe that held my feet in one position and alleviated any pressure from walking. Each weighed about 5, maybe 8 lbs. and, because I couldn’t bend my feet, I walked like a penguin. It was hard to keep my balance, so I had to get a cane. It was hard to walk up and down curbs. We had to move from our upstairs apartment to one downstairs. It was hard to reach the bottom row of the bulk items in the supermarket. I learned to ask for help. I thought that was what it meant to be disabled.

Flash forward a few years. I no longer wear the CRO boots and I exchanged my blue walking cane for a white one. After I graduated from the White Cane Academy, aka, mobility training, I wanted to take the bus somewhere. I got my $2 ready but the driver said it was only $1. I didn’t remember any spare the air day holiday so I thought maybe it was my lucky day or the fare machine was broken. I took the bus a few days later with the same driver and again, I only had to pay $1.  The third time, I asked why. I knew what was coming, something that I didn’t think of the other two times, but I wanted him to say it: “Because you are disabled.”

I really didn’t feel disabled until he said those words. I was able to get around without assistance. I was able to attend to my shopping needs unaided. My questions persisted. What about me was disabled?

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