Dr. Peggy McDonald’s Testimony Before Arts Education Joint Committee

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Good morning.  My name is Peggy McDonald, Coordinator of Professional Learning and Special Projects at NJPSA/FEA with a focus on special education and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.  I have been in the field of education for many years beginning my career as a teacher of Deaf students, speech language therapist, and audiologist.  I moved on to the NJ Department of Education as a consultant for school districts in the Office of Special Education and eventually moved on to the positions of Director of the Office of Special Education and Assistant Commissioner of what is now the Division of Educational Services.  After integrating the arts into my own classrooms and observing the benefits the arts bring to students with disabilities over many years, I appreciate this opportunity to discuss the topic with you this morning. 

The arts offer a myriad of benefits to students with disabilities, fostering holistic development and enhancing their overall social and emotional well-being. Firstly, artistic expression provides a platform for self-discovery, self-advocacy, and communication. For students who may struggle with verbal communication or traditional academic subjects, engaging in art forms such as painting, music, or drama offers alternative means to express thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Through creative expression, students can convey complex feelings, aspirations, perspectives, as well as knowledge and skills they have learned. The arts foster a sense of agency and empowerment and level the playing field by offering opportunities that highlight students’ strengths.

Secondly, participation in the arts promotes social inclusion and belonging. Inclusive arts programs, like the NJ’s Arts Integration initiative,  provide opportunities for students with disabilities to interact with peers, educators, and the broader community in supportive and collaborative environments. These interactions facilitate the development of social skills, empathy, and mutual understanding, breaking down barriers and promoting acceptance and respect for diversity. Through shared artistic experiences, students can forge meaningful connections, build friendships, and cultivate a sense of belonging that transcends physical or cognitive differences.

Engagement in the arts nurtures holistic development and enhances the learning of academic content. Creative activities stimulate various areas of the brain, fostering critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and imaginative thinking. For students with disabilities, participating in arts-based activities can strengthen cognitive processes, improve concentration, and boost confidence in their abilities. Moreover, the arts offer avenues for sensory exploration and sensory integration, providing sensory-rich experiences that can be embedded in academic content and provide multiple ways of representing content, assessing  what has been learned and engaging students to sustain interest in learning.  By harnessing the power of creativity, the arts unlock the potential for growth, self-expression, and personal fulfillment for students with disabilities.

Finally, the Arts provide students with disabilities potential career pathways that highlight their talents.  Access to career preparation programs in arts-related fields can facilitate successful transition to postsecondary education or competitive employment leading to meaningful independent participation in the community.  

Student report

Students with disabilities make up a significant segment of New Jersey’s 1.4 million students. The most data from the NJDOE indicates that in the fall of 2022, 17.62% of students in NJ, ages 3 through 21, were receiving special education services.  This is in addition to students with disabilities receiving accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Here are a few ways in which we can ensure access to arts education and all NJ arts initiatives for these students: 

  1. Ensure that students have access to accommodations and assistive technology and other services necessary for participation in arts education and arts programs in schools and their communities.  
  1. When arts standards are reviewed, involve artists with disabilities and special educators in stakeholder review groups.  
  2. Provide professional development to empower art teachers and classroom teachers integrating the arts into their classrooms with the tools and strategies they can use to include students with disabilities in arts education and school arts programs.
  3. Empower students with disabilities by giving them opportunities to express what they need to participate in the arts and include artists with disabilities in school/community  arts programs.