If you’re unsure how to engage youth with special needs through your work as a Peace Corps volunteer, local associations are a good place to start. Tata, my site, is not a very big town, but it does have the Association Al Amal for People with Disabilities. I noticed the association during my first blistering July in Tata. Typical for associations during the summer, the door was shut every time I went past, and there were no signs of life whenever I stopped by to bang on the door or creepily peer through the windows. Around my fifth time knocking on the door, though, a passerby spotted me and informed me that the association’s president would probably be there later that afternoon.
Soon enough, I met the president, who happily gave me a tour of the modest facility. Like many an eager volunteer, I told him that I was a volunteer with Peace Corps who is not a doctor but will work for free. For the next two weeks, he agreed to let me come and hang out in order to meet the staff and learn more about their work. Finally, the president suggested I start an art club. As a bonus, he also happens to own a bookstore and was able to provide basic materials like paper and colored pencils to get us started.
The art club has been meeting once a week for over a year now, and we’re still going strong. My students have a wide range of disabilities, so at first I thought it would be a huge challenge to think of a new art project every week that would be stimulating, fun, and suitable for everyone. I have since learned that the vast majority of art activities will work well for every budding artist, no matter their physical or cognitive abilities. As an example, for the past two weeks our club worked together to create a tree mural made out of paper. I drew a simple outline of a tree and then cut it up into pieces. Each person was then instructed to color in their own piece. There was one young man who has a developmental disability and is fairly low functioning, and since it was also his first day in the art club, the focus for him was getting acquainted with the different art supplies that were available and learning how to use them. He started out by making rows of short, straight lines, constantly lifting the crayon up and setting it down again. With some practice, though, he learned to keep the crayon on the paper and move it back and forth so that he could fill up more space with color in less time. There is another young man who has not a developmental but a physical disability (he has been using a wheelchair since 2006). He used markers to transform his part of the tree into a mosaic-like explosion of colors and shapes.
Friends of youth with special needs: In our club, everyone is welcome, and everyone participates. One of my biggest challenges has been encouraging family and friends to reshape their attitudes about their brothers, sisters, and friends with special needs. Like nearly everyone in Morocco, these family members have only the best of intentions. They mean well when they grab their brother’s arm and physically maneuver his hand around the paper, robbing him of any opportunity to learn and express himself. They mean well when they say, “she’s tired, mskina!,” or “she knows nothing,” or, “she can’t use scissors, I’ll do it for her.” They have started to learn, however, that their friends and family members with special needs are capable of learning, creating, and persevering as long as they are not blocked by misguided stereotypes. In this way, every art club session is an opportunity to change minds while directly engaging youth with special needs. All of us can incorporate people with special needs into our work as Peace Corps volunteers. We just need to find the right door and knock.