A wide assortment of artists and craftspeople came together last week-end at Prince George's Community College to celebrate the achievements of handicapped persons in the arts.It was the Very Special Arts Festival, one of 47 such festivals being held throughout of the National Committee, Arts for the Handicapped.
The fair offered ample evidence that being handicapped does not mean being limited creatively.
Among the performers were drummer Murphy Booth Jr., jazz pianist Bob Murphy and country singer Rita Canada, all of whom are blind. Members of the Gallaudet Dance Theater coordinated their presentation with music, which is not unusual for dancers, except that these were deaf. They moved in response to the vibrations, feeling in music rather than hearing it.
From handicapped children in Prince George's County there was a colorful art display, including ceramic animals and paintings and puppets. During the festival handicapped children were active, trying their hand at everything from making pots to weaving, from being clowns and mimes to dancers and musicians.
"The arts are the way we as human beings express our humanity. What's important to us," said festival director. Marian Fertik Hosmer. "And handicapped people are human beings."
An important goal of the festival, continued Hosmer, was giving the public a chance to interact with handicapped people. "People often have a fear of dealing with handicapped people," she said. "They're afraid they'll feel awkward or uncomfortable."
Former commercial artist Dottle Lonaberger, who taught drawing to children during the festival, agreed that the public often avoids handicapped people. Now confined to a wheelchair due to Freidreich's Agaxia, a hereditary affliction that causes deterioration of the nervous system, Lonaberger described her experience when she came to the Civil Service Commission, where she works as a computer technician.
"At first everybody stayed away from me. They stereotype the person in a wheelchair. They assume you're retarded," said Lonaberger. "Seeing me every day, getting used to me, they became more comfortable. And they also realized that if she's a computer programmer she has to have it 'upstairs.'
Another teacher during the festival, weaver Laureen Summers, whose muscular coordination and speech, have been impaired by cerebral palsy, finds that the arts facilitate people and the public.
"Art brings out the handicapped person so that the handicap doesn't become so important," said Summers. "People can focus on what the individual is doing or creating."
Summers a special projects assistant at the National Committee, Arts for the Handicapped, taught weaving during the past year to handicapped children in several public schools. She found that weaving provided a badly needed positive experience for the children.
"Handicapped children are taught that they cannot achieve great success," said Summers. "One of the benefits of teaching weaving is a child's realizing he can do something he admirers, having results that are successful. There is no wrong way to weave, so it's always a successful experience."
Summers said that even she was surprised by what some handicapped students could do.
"Once kids are really given the encouragement to go ahead and be creative, the results are really amazing. Every time I teach weaving. I see kids expand way beyond their supposed potential."
Dancer and movement specialist Shelley McCormick DeHaas, whose movement sessions during the festival workshop delighted handicapped participants - one girl in a wheelchair was even inspired to rise to her feet - pointed to the practical benefits of arts experiences. Movement makes people aware of their own self, its relation-ship to the environment and other bodies, explained DeHaas. Following movement patterns also teaches people useful vocational skills such as paying attention and carrying out directions, said DeHaas.
DeHaas, who works as a vocational program director at the Hope Center for the mentally retarded, described the change that movement had made in the life of a young man there.
"Four years ago he only sat. Now he responds to verbal commands and initiative cues. He can work on job contracts, doing assembly work and collating printed material, where he makes money.
"It's the difference in being just a lump and being able to experience the ability to move. After all, that's what people do when they live. They move," DeHaas said.