Increasing Participant Voice in Creative Arts Therapy

Tessa Hens, Dance Movement Therapist and Program Manager at Bayley House

The advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme has increased the expectations of people with disability to have choice and control over the services they access and use. People with intellectual disability, however, are often excluded from and disenfranchised in planning and funding processes.

This Melbourne Social Equity Institute Community Fellowship was also supported by the Melbourne Disability Institute.

The advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has increased the expectations of people with disability to have choice and control over the services they access and use. People with intellectual disability, however, are often excluded from and disenfranchised in planning and funding processes.

It was a concern about this lack of agency that motivated Tessa Hens, a Dance Movement Therapist and Program Manager at Bayley House, to apply for the Melbourne Social Equity Institute's Community Fellows Program. The program, first launched in 2016, provides an opportunity for people working in small to medium-sized community organisations to undertake projects in collaboration with University researchers.

Bayley House is a support and recreation service provider in Melbourne's south east. Dance Movement Therapy sessions aim to promote the physical, emotional and cultural wellbeing of those who participate using dance and creative arts as vehicles for therapeutic work. Intended outcomes include increased physical health, increased body awareness and movement vocabulary, opportunities for meaningful social connection, increased ability to self-regulate and calm, and validating inclusive opportunities for creative expression.

Photo of two people dancing with scarves

Image: Molly, a Dance Movement Therapy program participant, with Tessa Hens. Reproduced with permission.

Tessa is a passionate advocate for the right of people with disabilities to have a strong voice in directing their own lives in order to enjoy meaningful relationships, fulfilling community roles and to reach their own potential. Through the Fellowship, Tessa sought to develop assessment processes that meaningfully incorporated the voices, aspirations and experiences of participants.  In particular, the project sought to cater to a wide range of communication preferences and needs.

Inclusive research methodologies were a core part of the project. The research process included the development of an accessible project description and consent form.

Consent form examples - clear large text on left hand side of page with images and yes/no buttons to the right

Image: Examples of the accessible description and consent form developed for the project.

Eleven people participated in the research’s design, development and implementation, including seven people with intellectual disability.

Numerous self-assessment tools were trialled through the project including photos, symbols, film, dance diaries, group chats, drawing, movement and props.  These diverse tools and types of communication and listening enabled richer dialogues in self-assessment and in evaluation, with positive impacts on participant’s ability to steer their experiences within the program.

Throughout her Fellowship, Tessa Hens worked with academic mentor Dr Kim Dunphy, a Senior Lecturer in the Creative Arts and Music Therapy Research Unit in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music.

For Kim, the collaboration provided a valuable perspective on the reality of work in a real-world setting, its opportunities and limitations – "Tessa's commitment to person-centred practise and the ethos of eco-systematic approach to service delivery inspired us both to new ideas for research."

Kim and Tessa's collaboration has led to a peer-reviewed article in the international journal Disability & Society, published in September 2020.  They hope that this will further the discourse on approaches to assessment and self-assessment for participants with intellectual disability, including those who preference non-verbal communication. Kim reflects that "this was a very productive partnership and new ideas for further development of research are continuing to be generated between us."

Since the Fellowship began, Tessa reports the relationship between the Dance Movement Therapist and the Bayley House participants changed: "Assessment became a two (or more) way dialogue that regularly shaped and informed sessions. This enriched the therapeutic process and enhanced the wellbeing and self-image of participants."

Bayley House has already incorporated and is utilising a number of outcomes from the project. A working group consisting of participants and staff has been formed to increase opportunities and supports to allow participants to more actively self-assess and provide feedback on their service experiences. Participants are now able to complete an accessible participant feedback form about their own experiences of services at Bayley House during their NDIS review. This will be reviewed and further developed by the working group.

Bayley House has also begun to implement more training for staff on important accessibility tools, such as Easy Read. Underlying these actions is the intent that participants own views and experiences can more directly inform their programs and experiences at Bayley House in as many ways as possible. There is a huge amount of organisational goodwill to continue to develop good practice around participant advocacy within programs.

Tessa and Kim have shared their research findings with the Melbourne Disability Institute's research Community of Practice and with the Bayley House staff and Leadership Team.

For Tessa, this Community Fellowship “was an important step to ensuring creative arts therapy at Bayley House and beyond supports and responds to the goals and preferences of participants of all abilities. It has also spurred exciting discourse and projects which will hopefully inform innovative and good practice connected to participant advocacy in the organisation in future.”