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Adaptive Art Tools for Students With Physical Disabilities

By Barbara Smith

Students with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy may have spasticity that interferes with manipulating art materials such as markers and paintbrushes. The following are examples of adaptive equipment that helps students with spasticity improve motor control to perform art activities.

How Does Spasticity Interfere With Making Art?

Spasticity is a term that describes high muscle tone or tension felt when joints such as elbows or wrists are moved. Spasticity impacts motor control, especially the control required to grasp and manipulate small objects. Students will often find that they have better control in one of their hands-enabling them to use markers, paint brushes, ink stamps and other art tools. Adapting activities and use of adaptive equipment may improve control in that hand to use art tools while stabilizing materials with the other hand.

Using Adapted Art Tools

It is easier for student with spasticity to use extra large sized markers, paint brushes, rollers, chalk and glue sticks. These tools can also be enlarged and made more comfortable by taping foam around them. Paintbrushes with thin handles may be inserted inside a piece of foam grip (sold through therapy catalogs). One example of adaptive equipment that helps students with spasticity to sponge paint is made out of a laundry bottle by following these steps:

  • The handle and two flaps are cut out of the bottle (shown in photo: Step one)
  • A long tab is cut on one of the flaps (shown in photo: Step two)
  • Cut a small horizontal slit on the other flap
  • Cut two slits inside the sponge
  • Insert the tab through the slits in the sponge and then push into the horizontal slit in the other flap to secure the sponge in place (shown in photo: Step three)

Handle Shape Is Cut Out of a Laundry Detergent Bottle

Cut this shape out of a laundry bottleTab cut out of bottle flapTab inserted through sponge

Stabilizing Art Materials

Heart-Shaped Stencil Stabilized With Handle Art paper can be stabilized by taping it to a table or wall surface. Three dimensional objects such as oatmeal containers can be stabilized to decorate by placing something heavy inside of them. Flat wooden or metal surfaces to be painted can by stabilized with a C- clamp.

The following adapted stencil (shown to the right) can help students color or paint simple shapes. The handle and two sides (to create flaps) of a laundry bottle are again cut out of a laundry bottle. Then a shape such as a heart or star is cut out of one or both of the flaps to create the stencil.

Set-Up of Art Materials

Paper and other art surfaces can be positioned horizontally on the table, vertically on the wall or angled on a table easel in order to help the student achieve optimal motor control. Students may benefit from adaptive seating and set-up such as using a tray that fits on a wheelchair or table adapted to fit around the chair in order to more easily reach work materials. Arm troughs that stabilize the forearm may help to decrease tremors.

The Importance of Art

Use of art materials teaches young students about the sensory qualities of objects and develops visual perceptual skills to discriminate the lines and shapes that form pictures, letters and numbers.

Perhaps nobody demonstrated the importance of art more than the Irish painter and writer, Christy Brown. Born in 1932, he had a severe form of cerebral palsy that impacted motor coordination-leaving him completely dependent on others. However, once it was discovered that he could control chalk with his left foot, he was given the opportunity to communicate and create art. His story is told in the book and movie titled “My Left Foot.”

Christy Brown didn't have occupational therapy services. However, his story demonstrates how modern-day use of adaptive equipment that helps students with spasticity improve motor to perform art activities can be extremely important so that students can express themselves through art.