ArtAbilities Program - Promoting the Artwork of Children with Disabilities at the Mailman Center (FL UCEDD/LEND)

July 26, 2011

Daniel Armstrong, Ph.D., Director, Mailman Center for Child Development, Kianna Gherardi, ArtAbilities award ceremony, May 6, 2010
Daniel Armstrong, Ph.D., Director, Mailman Center for Child Development, Kianna Gherardi, ArtAbilities award ceremony, May 6, 2010

Each year in May student artists like Kianna  arrive with their art teachers, families and friends in the lobby of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine's Mailman Center for Child Development in Miami, Florida for the ArtAbilities award ceremony and exhibition.  This annual event features paintings, watercolors, and pastels executed by twenty Miami-Dade County Public School students with learning and/or physical challenges. All of the students' art works show a remarkable ability to manipulate color in various media and to create strikingly inventive artwork which speaks to their talent and ingenuity and which belies their years.  Parents, who are too often reminded of their children's disabilities, express pride and awe of their children's artistic ability.  Also parents report a new-found confidence in their son or daughter's demeanor which they attribute to the discovery of their artistic talent.

Marlene Kohn, an art teacher at Bel-Aire Elementary School in Miami, Florida and an artist in her own right, affirms that the ArtAbilities Program has had a positive impact on the behavior and deportment of her students.  She revealed that the teachers of some of her students recognize that the students work with greater purpose on the days when they are afforded the opportunity to work on their art projects.  This mission to use art as a mechanism to reveal and highlight the artistic abilities of children who are so often singled out for their disabilities was, no doubt, one of the objectives of the Mailman Center ArtAbilities program founded sixteen years ago.

The ArtAbilities Program was conceived in 1995 when the Mailman Center faculty and staff convened to assemble their annual brochure.  During the course of the meeting it was decided to place a child's artwork on the brochure's cover. The faculty and staff selected the artwork of Kelly Lynch, an eight-year old girl with autism spectrum disorder. Kelly's work was selected among twenty-five works of art from the Biscayne Garden Elementary School in Miami, FL.  The Mailman Center faculty and staff agreed that all of the art works were worthy of commendation and decided to host an art award ceremony and exhibition for all of the student artists and their parents/guardians. The success of this event was the catalyst for the development of the ArtAbilities program, award ceremony and exhibition, which is now led by Dr. Wanda Castro. 

Each year since that time, the Mailman Center selects new works of art created by the children in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools' special education program.  Teachers throughout the county select the best students' works and submit them to a five-member jury.  Out of an average of 140 submitted art pieces, twenty-five works of art are selected to become part of the ArtAbilities Collection.  Each of the winners is invited to the ArtAbilities award ceremony and exhibition. The participants bring their extended family to view their art, now framed with a bright color mat, and hung in its permanent place at the Mailman Center for Child Development.

The success of the Mailman Center's ArtAbilities Program has led to exciting collaborations to exhibit the ArtAbilities Collection in the community. In 2007 the Mailman Center partnered with Very Special Arts of Florida (VSAFL) in order to present the exhibition Art on the Move. The initiative was a multi-faceted, multisensory art experience for children, youth and adults of all abilities, which extolled the importance of accessibility in the arts.  Art on the Move featured twenty works of art from the ArtAbilities Collection.  The didactic labels were reproduced in Braille and large format print and four of the works were re-created as three-dimensional tactile versions. Visitors to the traveling exhibition also had the opportunity to take a free audio described tour using their cell phones.

This past year, the Mailman Center collaborated with the Miami-Dade Aviation Department Galleries at the Miami International Airport to exhibit eighty-five selected works from the ArtAbilities Collection at the Miami Internation Airport Galleries.   

Through their participation in ArtAbilities, children with learning and/or physical challenges have an opportunity to discover their talents, experience successful competition and contribute to the enrichment of our visual environments.  By promoting their artistry, ArtAbilities helps to overturn negative stereotypes of disability and to create a new vision of independence, productivity, and full access to community life. 

For more information on the ArtAbilities Program, contact Dr. Wanda Castro, ArtAbilities Director at 305-243-4466 or