Program Profile

Feature Issue on Careers in The Arts for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Preparing for a Career in the Arts: Filling the Pipeline


Spenser M. Norris is the employment coordinator for the IDEAL program at the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health in Atlanta, Georgia. She may be reached at

Cara Leigh Davis is the academic access coordinator for the IDEAL program. She may be reached at

Additional contributors: Andrew Roach, Niklas Vollmer

Two black men wearing black, short-sleeved shirts, look closely at a camera sitting on a tripod. One is wearing glasses, the other a gold necklace and earring.

IDEAL Student De’onte Brown works with a program mentor, Timothy Richardson, on filming an interview.

Digital and cultural literacy and digital citizenship were emerging trends in education literature in 2015. Technology innovation in arts education, specifically, was identified as a promising pathway for building communication and other skills in young children (Lemon, 2015). Public funding and support for arts and humanities, particularly in education, was in decline, however. This further widened inequities in access to K-12 art education and opportunities, despite the arts’ abundantly documented benefits in education, mental health, and overall public health outcomes. Meanwhile, trends in media and entertainment were focused on storytelling, retrospectives, and pieces related to exploring the human experience. Still, disability representation in the arts and media was severely lacking (Smith, 2016). Gaps in arts education, professional opportunities, and representation for people with disabilities continued to grow, even as technology became ubiquitous in daily life and global organizations (including the United Nations) declared internet access a human right. With inclusive post-secondary education funding opportunities opening across the United States, it was clear that creating digitally rich curricula that prepares students for professional-level careers in the arts was needed to address the lack of access to the arts for students with disabilities in K-12 education. It was also clear this training was needed to fill the employment pipeline to the professional arts industry. Telling stories through art, media, and related fields with equitable representation and perspective increases our interconnectedness and understanding of each other and our world. This understanding begins with education.

In our state of Georgia, data from K-12 schools suggested that each year, approximately 2,000 high school graduates with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) qualify for participation in college, but there were only 25 to 30 openings for these students in existing programs. Nationally, while there were more than 200 inclusive post-secondary programs in 2015, none of these programs to our knowledge specifically prepared students for careers in the arts and related industries. The U.S. Department of Education’s Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) provided grants to 27 institutions, including the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University, in a second cohort of model programs to create or expand post-secondary opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. Data from these model programs demonstrated that the college experience positively affects employment outcomes, social connections, and independence for individuals with IDD.

The IDEAL (Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy) program at Georgia State University began in January 2017 as an arts-focused, inclusive higher education program for students with IDD. The program is a two-year (four semesters) inclusive college certificate program built upon four principles: career development, academic enrichment, growth in self-determination, and building independent living skills. These principles provide an organizing framework of individual support for the educational and social inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities for immersion in the higher education experience. Students’ academic and social development, work experience and training, and increased self-advocacy and independent living skills empower them to lead more prosperous, fuller lives in their respective communities.

The IDEAL program was intended to leverage university resources in media and the arts and its location in Atlanta, a global hub for journalism, filmmaking, music, art, and design. The program was strategically designed by a multi-disciplinary team to empower students with intellectual disabilities through arts and media expression and literacy. This focus made IDEAL unique among other post-secondary programs. Professional opportunities within the arts offer people with disabilities unique opportunities to access income, self-advocacy, and expression. For many reasons, people with intellectual disabilities may be less likely to work in traditional employment settings. Arts-related industries often allow for people with IDD to create their own schedules, determine their levels of involvement, responsibility, and schedules, as well as potentially negotiate their own contract rates, accommodations and supports. This enhances self-advocacy, self-management, and self-regulation. It also provides flexibility, allowing artists who rely on federal benefits to comply with required income limits. All of these offer opportunities for people with IDD to display agency and decision making in regards to their professional and personal needs.

Results since 2017 include a current employment rate at graduation of 80 percent. Graduates have been hired as production assistants at CNN, video editors for local dance companies, and various art-adjacent jobs such as security and customer service at one of Atlanta’s most prominent venues, Mercedes Benz Stadium. Students have shown improvements in academics, self-determination, confidence, and self-esteem, and have expanded their career interests and opportunities.

The IDEAL program supports students pursuing careers in art, music, acting, film production, sound design, graphic design, art education, and other related industry pathways. Courses students have completed include acting, film production, sound design, graphic design, typography, photography, introduction to the videogame industry, 2D and 3D design, screenwriting, African American Theatre, hand-building and wheel-throwing. Students have opportunities to learn and engage both in and out of the classroom and develop connections with faculty, staff, and other students. This learning is reciprocal and also challenges class instructors and typically matriculating students to expand their ideas of “intellect,” “intelligence,” and diversity.

Along with academic courses and training opportunities at local media organizations, IDEAL teaches inclusive courses related to navigating regional public transportation, money management, disability accommodations, making and maintaining friendships, relationships, dating etiquette, and sexual health education. Each spring, IDEAL students meet with state representatives to share information about inclusive higher education and disability justice and learn more about the processes of congress. IDEAL graduates have displayed their work in galleries around Atlanta, including the Coca-Cola Center, Ernest G. Welch Gallery, and several other local outlets. One IDEAL alumnus just released his first album on all streaming platforms.

Part of the guiding philosophy of post-secondary arts education is the recognition that not all graduates should be limited to strict definitions of careers in the arts, however. Students should be exposed to a broad range of expression and skills in the creative media, art, design, and arts education fields. This exposure during the post-secondary experience will lead graduates to more meaningful careers.

Successes, Challenges

In addition to the high employment rate of graduates and significant relationship development we’ve observed during the first four years of post-secondary arts education, other successes have been observed. Relationships between peer mentors and students with disabilities have developed into mutual support. Peer mentors and students support each other to learn about themselves and others and consider possible career interests and skills. Connections with industry partners and community professionals via internships, work-study, and paid employment are creating real bridges to employment for graduates.

The global pandemic has exposed continued inequities in access to technology, though many students are adjusting to remote learning in video editing, sound and graphic design, and marketing.

Other challenges include employers’ misunderstanding or biases about IDD and a lack of disability education in general, despite programs’ robust training for employers on designing accommodations and understanding disability laws and the rights of persons with disabilities.

Student access to industry-specific courses, such as game design and on-screen acting, came only through relationship development with professors and administrators in these academic departments and programs. Students could not always access other courses that provide critical internship pathways and connection making because they lacked prerequisite coursework typically completed in high school or in the traditional degree-seeking pathway courses. College preparation for this population is lacking, and K-12 educators are sometimes unaware of the skills needed to promote students’ success in postsecondary contexts. Lack of preparation for the academic rigor, combined with some professors’ lack of familiarity and comfort with people with disabilities, can make college classes less accessible. Further, some courses are not accessible to or feasible for students with IDD due to academic language, workload expectations, and class sizes.

Previously, despite paying university tuition and fees, IDEAL students audited classes and did not receive college credits for courses they completed. Historically, post-secondary programs have offered career readiness certificates given through different colleges within the university system. This fall, however, IDEAL will begin supporting students to earn credits toward degree programs, in addition to those auditing courses. Of our 16 accepted first-year students, half will be enrolled in associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs.

Looking forward, expanded funding to support more students with disabilities in post-secondary art programs, along with universities’ growing tendency to waive standardized admission test scores for applications, could substantially increase the number of students with disabilities pursuing professions in the arts in the coming years. We can only imagine the possibilities.

De'onte Speaks about IDEAL and College Life | In this video, De’onte talks about his favorite college experiences. 


  • Lemon, N. (Ed). (2015). Revolutionizing Arts Education in K-12 Classrooms through Technological Integration. IGI Global.

  • Smith , S., Choueiti, M., & Pieper, K. (2016). Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015. Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.