How to help our relatives with disabilities or dementia to get in touch with art?

During the last almost two years different art ateliers for amateurs, combining drawing and wine testing, have become extremely popular. This is an excellent opportunity for many people to get in touch with art and to reveal their artistic potential. And of course, to entertain with friends. I personally joined several such events and can say that these were great amusements.

However, while thinking about these artistic experiences, I have the impression that they are more suitable for people who don’t suffer physical or mental impairments. But how to make art accessible to those who have such? Of course, there are many charitable organisations which work with people with disabilities and organise different art therapeutic sessions, where they can draw, sing or even participate in theatrical performances. This is great and I truly hope that there will be much more social programmes and sponsors that support such activities.

But (yes, another BUT in capital letters pops-up here) – how to make art at galleries and museums accessible for people with disabilities? During the last years, many public and private institutions have made many improvements for physical accessibility of their buildings. But what happens when a person with disability enters the art gallery or museum hall? How does he or she get in touch with the paintings, sculptures or museum artefacts themselves? Is there anyone to explain these to them in a suitable way – with sign language, via devices with audio recordings, or by specially developed visual or text materials? Are there specially trained curators, gallery or museum guides who can do this? I personally have never heard about such museum or gallery in Bulgaria (of course, there could be some, but I haven’t seen any announcement on any website or tickets office…)

Many people could say that training and hiring such art experts or museum guides would be very expensive. I agree that most probably there aren’t many museums or art galleries which can ensure the whole scale of experts as full-time paid staff (especially taking into account relatively low budgets for culture in general).

Here are some small entry steps which we can take to help a relative with disability or dementia get in touch with the beautiful world of art:

  • Search at the Internet for more information about the painting, sculpture or art installation, its author and art history movement to which it belongs. Many famous museums and art galleries digitalised their collections and uploaded lots of information on their websites. Another easily accessible hub is the Visual Art Encyclopaedia, where you could find a large volume of paintings catalogued by style, author or country of origin.
  • Try to ‘narrate’ the paining using your own words and by focusing on what is depicted on it, which the main subjects are, what colours, shapes and patterns are used, etc.
  • If you describe a sculpture, you can hold the other person’s hands and together try to follow the curves of the artwork.
  • While narrating your story, be as poetical and lyrical as possible. Use adjectives and positive comparisons. Encourage them to recall particular events related to the artwork which you have had together. These will make your description more emotional and will help the person with disabilities feel the work with their own senses and enjoy their access to art world. However, be careful not to sound too wordy or complicated in your expressions, as this might be confusing for them.
  • If you have possibility (and wish), you could do something together – an improvised drawing, collage (even with hands-on things) or a simple game in which the person with disabilities or dementia tries to ‘mirror’ the gestures or the position of one or another main subject from the painting. This will give them a chance to express their inner world, to connect with the artwork and to intuitively feel its beauty.

Of course, these are just a few ideas. Be creative and enjoy the pleasure of art for yourself first. This will make easier for you to help your relatives with disabilities or dementia to get in touch and feel the beauty of artworks too.

Author: Mariana Petrova, initiator of Artied – Art Inspired Education