Adults with Special Needs Blossom at College of Adaptive Arts

By Diane Andrews
Adults with Special Needs Blossom at College of Adaptive Arts

College and life-long learning is now a reality for Bay Area adults with special needs, who age out of the public school system at 22-years-old and historically have not had access to a college education.

At the College of Adaptive Arts (CAA), San Jose, adults with differing abilities are given the opportunity to grow and blossom through the arts.

Focusing on their abilities rather than their limitations, students pursue classes in fine arts, dance, music, theater, communications, digital arts and video/television. They can also choose programs in health and wellness, science and technology, and library arts. The curriculum builds upon each course, allowing adult learners to grow at their own rate in the artistic areas of their choice.

CAA is founded on the conviction that adults with special needs have often untapped talent and abilities and benefit from engaging with and contributing to their communities.

“Adaptive stems from the idea that if a student wants to be there and keep learning, we’ll be as creative as possible to make it happen,” said DeAnna Pursai, CAA Executive Director.

At the nonprofit college, where over 60 percent of the instructors and staff  have disabilities, students thrive. One such student is 47-year-old Jennifer, a married woman who works at a grocery store and loves to dance in her free time.

“CAA is amazing. It has change me on things. And learning news and learning how to be more patiton (patient) and respect. But to beat your challenge(s),” wrote Jennifer in an email. She was an understudy actress and took over the role when the lead actress became ill.

“I did in June I only learn my lines is 2 days before the show. I got student abaser (ambassador). Usley (Usually) it take two years become one but I alway(s) tell people about CAA I love it so much. I met new people and the teachers are wonderful,” continued Jennifer.

Pamela Lindsay, who co-founded CAA with Pursai, is getting a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on best educational practices for special needs adults. Lindsay has developed and copyrighted the educational model ARTS (Access, Respond, Transfer, Sustain/Share), which is the best practice model implemented by CAA.

CAA (www.collegeofadaptivearts.org) began in 2009 with 12 students enrolled in one class. It now tops 90 students enrolled in 35 classes each week at nine school campuses. Students can earn certificates and private, non-transferrable diplomas.

“I commend CAA for creating a learning environment that is fun and engaging. My daughter, Renee, is thriving at CAA. She has blossomed. Renee has greater confidence, improved speech and reading,” commented Linda Gonzales in an email, calling herself a proud CAA mom.

“Attending College of Adaptive Arts has changed Renee’s life,” said Gonzales. “I am grateful for the one of a kind collegiate experience.”

“We are debt free and growing, so we like to say CAA is our own little start-up in the Silicon Valley,” said Pursai. “Our biggest challenge right now is to find more space to accommodate all of the new students and families who keep finding us.”

CAA’s vision is to consolidate classes on one campus by partnering with a local college or university, hiring host-campus students in fields such as education, autism, brain development, psychology and motivation theory, to be instructors. CAA would also like to collaborate in educational research.

“We would like to construct a living learning lab [enabling students and professors]…to observe how transformative it can be when adults are held accountable, given high expectations, and given the opportunity to create and learn in a safe space,” said Pursai.

“It’s just a thrilling and intoxicating environment,” she continued. “We like to say we could compete with Disney in being the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’”