Disabilities and Creativity: A Little Help for Our Friends

Some of the brightest people I know have disabilities. I have a gifted uncle who is blind. I have friends—young and old—with exceptional intelligence and attention disorders. A professor-friend, a national leader at the top of his field, has trouble reading. I could go on.

Sadly, as anyone in the field of special education can tell you, too often a focus on identifying and addressing disabilities can shift attention away from the many gifts that are present. A friend’s young son was placed in a class for students with serious cognitive deficits. He spent his time in daily repetition of basic skills. When I met him a year later (when, fortunately, they had moved from that district), I was dumbfounded. I could not believe that ANYONE, let alone a teacher, could have had a five-minute conversation with that young man and not recognize his bright creative mind. Yes, he had attention issues. Yes, he had trouble with reading. But he had curiosity, and ideas aplenty. Later, thanks to persistent parents and some fine educators, he found his voice and vocation through film. To his early teachers, his transformation would seem miraculous, but I keep hearing echoes of the old Beatles tune, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” That was all he needed–a little help.

If we intend to provide classrooms that are supportive of creative and flexible thinking, it is essential that we consider, How do we structure classrooms with opportunities for creative thinking available for all students?” Certainly there are students with severe cognitive limitations who will have trouble with abstract thinking, including some creative thinking activities. But most of the students in our classes who have disabilities are capable of flexible and original thinking, given the proper supports. We just have to think about what supports are needed.

One fine place to begin is at CAST website. Originally known as the Center for Applied Special Technology, CAST is a nonprofit organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities. They do this through principles of Universal Design for Learning and creative uses of technology. Here are a few examples—explore the site and find many more.

  • Explore the UDL Editions of several classic works. These interactive editions of works such as Call of the Wild and “The Tell-Tale Heart” provide online supports to engage and support students who may struggle with the text. With these supports in mastering the stories, students can then participate in analytical and creative discussions of the ideas in the texts, without being hampered by reading difficulties.
  • Once you’ve seen how exciting the UDL books can be, use the UDL Book Builder to create your own, custom-built books. You are guided every step of the way to preparing supportive texts for students ages 3 and up.
  • Use Exploratree thinking guides to support all students in their creative and critical thinking. For example, notice the guides focusing on inquiry, multiple perspectives, and even SCAMPER. With these supports, students with attention difficulties are better able to examine many sides and aspects of an idea.
  • Discover how the  CAST Science Writer supports middle and high schools students in writing science reports.

These are just a tiny sampling of the scores of supports provided at the CAST website and linked National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Most are free and available online. Take some time to explore and see which options are most appropriate for your students. I found it helpful to start at any point of the Checklist for UDL Guidelines, and just click on the various checkpoints to explore different resource options.

Which options are your favorites? Do you have other favorite resources for supporting students with disabilities in complex and creative thinking? Please share—we’d love to hear from you.

One thought on “Disabilities and Creativity: A Little Help for Our Friends

  1. “Some of the brightest people I know have disabilities.”
    This is probably the truest statement I’ve ever read. It is probably a gift for having to deal with their shortcomings, but learning disabled people often have some abilities that truly make them special.
    I think special schools must promote their creativity with activities built around their skills. The DIR Model addresses the overall aspect of a child’s development, helping their explore their creativity and individuality.


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