Shortbus Studio: Making It Cool

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Arts, Disability and Adventure

As a longtime advocate for community inclusion, nothing could sound less cool to me than a sheltered workshop—you know, where people with disabilities are segregated and confined in one space all day, sitting at tables doing repetitive piece work for which they are paid very little.

But in Burnsville, NC, the Shortbus Studio folks have transformed an isolating, boring, limiting sheltered workshop into an “intuitive art and outdoor adventure program”, as described by its intrepid leader, Cassandra Styles.

At Shortbus Studio, artists/participants create art and crafts, volunteer in the community, do challenging sports, and just generally have a whole lot of fun.

So my question for y’all is this: why can’t every sheltered workshop turn into a place where the arts, community engagement, and adventure are primary elements?

Looking to the Shortbus Studio experience as an inspiration and model, I believe they can.

Some history: in 2008, Yancey Residential Services took over management of the “Mountain Opportunity Center” sheltered workshop. Cassandra Styles, who was very involved in the design and construction an innovative, award-winning group home for that agency– Hawthorne House– was asked to lead an effort to enrich and update the day program.

The program participants and staff decided to focus on the arts and adventure, one person saying he wanted to finally “make the short bus cool”–and that was the name of their art gallery and store. They then painted all the walls of their building bright (very bright) colors, and started trying out any and every activity they could think of, like regular massages and eating sushi. And they were off and hiking!

What I admire most is how Cassandra and her team (including staff and artists)  find ways to use adventures, volunteering and the arts to build collaborations and everyday relationships. People in the larger community come to see for themselves that individuals with disabilities are much more alike than different from them.

Clay ArtistOne great example of this was the idea to offer much-needed space to the Western North Carolina Quilt Trails Project  along with design board prep support, so that quilt project designers and artists naturally work alongside Shortbus Studio artists and get to know each other.

Through this contract, Shortbus earns a little extra money for art supplies and other expenses, as they do with their colorful gallery/gift shop, where greeting cards and t-shirts with original, quirky art and quotes are for sale.

Another way Shortbus Studio artists hone their skills while engaging with the area’s active and dynamic arts community is through the Toe River Arts Council. Taking part in 4-week class sessions 3 times a year, they explore new techniques in ceramics, found and recycled art and sculpture, and much more.

Here it is—-the videos:

One of the best creative projects they do is making short videos, which can be viewed on the Shortbus Studio YouTube channel . Cassandra Styles and staff member Seth Johnson worked together with a team of staff, Shortbus artists, and friends to create, shoot and edit short videos in 4 hours flat – all while having a great time: an amazing accomplishment in my book! 

What could be cooler than going out in the community, acting silly or serious, making music and creating dialogue, having fun and ending up with a video that can be enjoyed by everyone?

My favorite is Shortbus Studio’s Home Sweet Home. and I also recommend Courage to Love  and Shortbus Studio’s Flash Animation .

Siberian BearcubsCool volunteer projects Shortbus Studio artists do include: working in a community garden that feeds hungry people; making chew toys for the animal shelter, (once doing hands-on care of rescued Siberian bear cubs for a zoo–see left),  turtle rescue, river and beach clean-up, MANNA food bank, raising funds for the Red Cross and others, shelving books in school libraries, and serving as Big Sisters/Big Brothers to young residents of nursing homes.

Living out their motto , “Get out and play!,  Shortbus Studio artists go on weekly  mountain hikes, ride horses, go whitewater rafting, zip lining, kayaking and anything else they can think of that’s adventuresome and fun.


Shortbus Studio Whitewater RaftingThe Shortbus Studio example brings up several questions for me that have multiple complicating side-issues .  I plan to address these in follow-up posts:

How could this model be duplicated? What are the essential factors for such a transformation–from sheltered workshop to arts, community engagement and outdoor adventure program—to occur in our state and in the U.S.? Cassandra Styles may be presenting at this year’s TASH Conference—stay tuned!

What will be the effect of the new Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) regulations from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services? Instituted this year, these regs significantly increase the range of community options and access to the community that must be offered to individuals served, in order for the service provider to be reimbursed by Medicaid.

And what about the highest ideals of inclusion activists–that individuals with disabilities should not live in group homes,  go out into the community in groups, or attend segregated day programs?  How do those ideals fit with the reality that there are many, many individuals  who need and want the support of a supervised residence/program?  There are also many adults with disabilities who are living with their families or in their own staffed apartments or homes who don’t have the opportunity to express themselves creatively and are not engaged in the community. These people may feel  isolated and lonely, and may not have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to society.

These questions don’t have definitive answers, for sure, but they are certainly worth pursuing.

Meanwhile, please do check out Shortbus Studio’s Facebook page—it’s way cool….


One thought on “Shortbus Studio: Making It Cool

  1. Love Short Bus, truly; great idea to replicate any/everywhere! Have happily shopped the Burnsville store; had no idea they/y’all were doing so much other cool stuff…seems like everyone, me especially, could use more adventure, community, art making, opportunity…..isolation just plain hurts. Well done, Bravo, Hats Off, Kudos, Congratulations, Gratitude to each + every hand + heart, body + mind + spirit contributing.
    You’ve got it all round happening…no small feat, in these times especially. WOW! Maybe I’ll join up/hook in
    as a volunteer….hmmm. Thanks, Polly, for the update/good news! Website looks good; your blog ‘got me’,
    my first post….we’ll talk soon,
    Carol Hubbard

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