On Wednesday hundreds of visual and performing artists will gather in Washington for the four-day 2004 International VSA arts Festival. What makes this festival unique is that the artists all have disabilities. What quickly becomes apparent is how little that matters.

Adrian Anantawan plays with a prosthetic arm, but audiences stop noticing that once they hear the resonance of his violin. Erin Brady Worsham creates stunning graphic designs, all through the movement of her eyebrows. The Wild Zappers, based in Greenbelt, is an all-male deaf dance company (shown at right).

Yet it is the talent of these artists that shines. And in exposing that talent to the world, VSA arts, which stands for Vision, Strength and Artistic Expression, exposes the power of the arts to enrich all of our lives.

Research shows that the arts profoundly affect learning and the quality of life for people of all ages and abilities. Yet in cities and states across the nation, funding for community and school arts programs is being slashed.

Perhaps public officials are unaware of the thousands of students who, according to the College Entrance Examination Board, scored at least 100 points higher on the SATs because they participated in the arts. Or perhaps they have not spoken with the teachers who say the arts are critical to educating children who learn in nontraditional ways, including those with dyslexia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities. Perhaps these officials have not met the wheelchair users, the visually impaired and deaf people who, after years of waiting, now enjoy access to arts venues through the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is one of those venues. VSA arts was founded there 30 years ago, when society was just becoming aware that people with disabilities were excluded from participation in the arts. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was before Congress. That law challenged America to see not only how people with disabilities benefited from an education, but also how our educational system benefited from including people with disabilities.

In the years since, children and adults with disabilities have found a new means of self-expression through the arts, and we are all the richer for it. As my brother President Kennedy said: "Behind the storm of daily conflict and crisis . . . the poet, the artist, the musician, continues the quiet work of centuries, building bridges of experience between peoples, reminding man of the universality of his feelings . . . and reminding him that the forces that unite are deeper than those that divide."

JEAN KENNEDY SMITH

Founder

VSA arts

Washington