Art Studio Helps Adults With Disabilities Turn Their Passion Into A Career

Jul 16, 2017

Teenagers often have to wait years to do the things they want to do — drive, drink, vote. But for Mara Clawson, it was something different.

As a teen, Clawson loved making art — specifically drawing with pastels.

So at 14, she reached out to Art Enables, a studio, gallery and vocational program in Washington, D.C., where she really wanted to make that art. But Art Enables requires its members to be at least 21 years old.

That didn't deter her. During the seven-year wait, Clawson stayed focused.

She and her parents kept in close touch with the gallery, and she submitted work to its exhibits as a special guest. After about 2,500 days, Clawson finally joined the ranks.


Art Enables is a lot like any other arts studio — it has big windows and a paint-splattered sink, it's quiet enough to hear a paintbrush clink the sides of a water glass, and, of course, it's full of art.

Those things attracted Clawson, but she was also drawn to the artists who make up the studio — artists, like her, who have a disability of some kind.

Clawson, who still works in pastels but has branched out into digital art, was born with familial dysautonomia, a neurogenetic disorder that affects her autonomic nervous system.

"Art is my life," she writes on her website, and Art Enables is one place she engages in that life.

"Our mission is to help artists build a career in the arts," says executive director Tony Brunswick. "Art Enables is not an art therapy program; it's not an arts education program. We're a professional studio."

Artists regularly exhibit work in the on-premises galleries, and visitors can purchase that art. When I visited, there were a number of red dots indicating "sold" on the works in the show. This is a business — artists earn income from the sales and work to build their personal brands.

When I first met Clawson, I could see the focus on art as a profession — she immediately handed me her business card. Shawn Payne, whose art depicts designs of high-fashion shoes, talked to me about his efforts to build up his social media presence. Nonja Tiller, a comic artist, showed me a children's book she is illustrating called The Ugly Puppy — a story about a dog with a disability who is taunted by other dogs. Once the book is finished, she hopes to sell copies at local stores.

"I'm trying to let people know who we are," Tiller said as she flipped through her illustrations. "We're humans; we're like anybody else."

But all this takes money. Art Enables (and programs like it across the country) aren't free to run. While artists do draw revenue from their work, there is a fee to participate in the program.

About half of the artists in Art Enables' studio were referred through the city's Department on Disability Services, which classifies the studio as an employment readiness program. When an artist joins Art Enables through DDS, about 70 percent of the cost is covered by a waiver program funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, while local funding covers the rest.

So for Art Enables and the artists who participate, the congressional debate over the health care bill is of particular interest. In its current state, the Republican bill would impose more than $700 billion worth of cuts to Medicaid over 10 years.

"We're dealing with a lot of uncertainty ... We're waiting to see which way things go," says Thomas Jared Morris, the deputy director for the Developmental Disabilities Administration at DDS. "Hopefully we're protecting the funding that we've been able to take advantage of over the years."

The cost of not funding Art Enables, though, could also be high.

"If folks didn't have vocational opportunities like this to participate in, it just means that they're not building the opportunity to build an independent income," says Brunswick. "It means that they're more dependent on supportive programs and services than they would otherwise be, which is why there's been a real push on vocational services."

Employment rates for folks with disabilities can be pretty low. In D.C., about 33 percent of working-age people with disabilities are employed, compared with about 79 percent of working-age people overall, according to a 2015 American Community Survey. Employers "still don't want to hire people with disabilities," says Morris, who has been in the field of human services for 14 years.

From his point of view, any exposure that highlights the talents of the long-marginalized community is good exposure.

When a passersby walk off of busy Rhode Island Avenue into Art Enables and fall in love with a hand-painted birdhouse or a sketch before learning that it was made by someone with a disability, that piece of art has the opportunity to broaden their perspective. In other words, allowing art and artists to do what they best.

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