“A Need to Be Understood”: Students’ Evolving Understanding of Disability Through an Immersive, Inclusive Arts Project

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This research project sought to explore the impact of an immersive, inclusive arts project on undergraduate students’ interpretations of disability. Students were enrolled on a degree which celebrates diversity and advocates inclusive practice, developing students’ knowledge and skills to work creatively with others. Students’ conceptualisation of normalcy, diversity and disability will have significant impact on their future professional practice in their engagement with artists, peers, service users and colleagues. This felt like an important reason to research, with ethical approval, the potential impact of an immersive project to inform students’ worldview and thus shape their future practices.


Through a qualitative methodology, students’ perspectives and attitudes were explored. Students were asked to define their understanding of ‘disability’ at the outset of their studies, and at the conclusion of the immersive project which incorporated a theoretical lecture series, creative and practical workshops, seminars and a work placement in local special schools in collaboration with an inclusive theatre company. The construct of disability was interrogated from multiple perspectives, engaging with critical disability studies literature (Goodley, 2017) and social constructionist epistemology (Rapley, 2010). This echoes Gieben-Gamal and Matos’ (2017, p. 2022) position, asserting that ‘design students should be given a thorough grounding in the social model of disability as a transformative means to counter the pervasiveness of the medical and personal tragedy models or common-sense understandings of disability’. The project was an authentic expression of the practices students would explore in their future careers, and exemplified the course’s ethos: ‘Through teaching with, and by, rather than about [disability], we in education may move beyond normalizing understandings and practices of inclusion, towards an expanded notion of professionalism’ (Laes and Westerlund, 2018, p. 34).

Findings and Impact

Despite enrolling on a course which proactively advocates an affirmative interpretation of disability, engaging through the arts as a transformative practice, students’ perspectives at the outset overwhelmingly aligned with a medical or individual interpretation of disability, with emphasis on deficit based language. Through meaningful engagement with children and adults with lived experience of disability, and through critical interrogation of ‘bestowed knowledge’ (Moore and Slee, 2012, p. 227), students developed an increasingly affirmative, non-normative interpretation of disability, evidenced in definitions which were increasingly critical of environmental and societal structures. This shift may have significant impact on the future practice of this generation of inclusive, creative students.


Gieben-Gamal, E. & Matos, S. (2017), Design and Disability: Developing New Opportunities for the Design Curriculum, Design Journal, 20(1), p. 2022–32

Goodley, D. (2017), Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction (2nd Edn), London: Sage

Laes, T. and Westerlund, H. (2018), Performing Disability in Music Teacher Education: Moving Beyond Inclusion Through Expanded Professionalism’, International Journal of Music Education, 36(1), p. 34–46

Moore, M. and Slee, R. (2012), ‘Disability Studies, Inclusive Education and Exclusion’, in N. Watson, A. Roulstone and C. Thomas [Eds], Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies, London: Routledge, p. 225–39

Rapley, M. (2010), The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2019
EventFLSE Learning & Teaching Conference 2019: Making an Impact - USW , United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jul 20194 Jul 2019


ConferenceFLSE Learning & Teaching Conference 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • disability
  • inclusive practice
  • student
  • research
  • learning and teaching
  • inclusive arts


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