Culture and Creative Being.

“To attain the freedom to live happily with others you need to see yourself as part of the culture and the culture as part of yourself”

Klaus Vilhelmsen is head of the school department at Institutionen for Døvblinde,
Denmark. IDB is the Danish provision for congenitally deafblind adults.

A couple of years ago we developed an exciting project about water. As part of the project we visited the beach and collected a lot of different things. We collected seaweed, stones, sand, snail shells, wooden boxes, plastic bottles, fishing-nets, etc.
On our return, we made a sculpture out of the materials. The sculpture became richly coloured and had different structures and scents. On the top we placed a plastic can with a lot of perforations. We connected a water hose to the can so that water could run down the whole sculpture. It certainly was a sculpture with a lot of sensory impressions.

During the parents weekend shortly after we had finished the sculpture, we made a similar visit to the beach. The parents, the students and staff made a new sculpture. When it was finished I stood beside a father and we talked about it. He pointed at
the sculpture and said: “Well Klaus, is this really art?”

At that particular moment I did not know what to answer. I had to think it over. This is a question I will come back to later in this article.


At the Institution for Deafblind people, we all work inside a cultural framework. During the last few years we have been discussing the value of seeing teaching and learning in the light of deafblind culture. If a group has no perceived cultural
belonging, its members are in danger of losing their identity. This leads to a marginalisation in society with the possible risk of losing fundamental human rights.

We agreed deafblind culture consists of three elements:

With this in mind the deafblind people, their families and staff will all be part of the cultural experience in our institution.
One thing that deafblind people can teach us in particular, is for us to learn to pay more attention to all our senses. But this is not easy. A Danish philosopher says about this: “As human beings we have two - and only two - ways in which we can structure our approach to the world. One is by cognitive understanding and the other is through sense perception.

In our culture, however, we have that problem that our sense perception is drowned by our cognitive understanding. We always experience our senses on the conditions of our cognitive understanding.

At the Institution for the Deafblind we don’t see the concept of culture as a fashionable idea, but as a social framework through which the deafblind person can understand himself through perceiving, having experiences and through self- expression both for his own benefit and for the continued development of the culture.

Aesthetics and the development of identity

We look at culture as a framework embracing the three concepts - creativity, identity and quality of life. Where creativity is the basis for development of identity, and where the possibility of using and developing ones creativity as basis for exploring
one’s identity is possible, a better and more fulfilling quality of life is experienced.

We understand creativity to mean “the ability to create oneself again”. In this way new understanding and new possibilities for action are created. Creativity is also the dimension, which evokes the connection between fantasy and product.

The ability to be creative can be looked upon as one of the essential components identity.

You cannot be given an identity, it is developed through a personal process. So by giving peace, space, and access to deafblind people they can initiate and motivate this personal process. Important consequences of this way of thinking about the identity process are, that deafblind people must be given the possibility to self- management, independence, and participation in making decisions. It’s important to see the “actions” of a deafblind person as an expression of identity.

At IDB we agreed that aesthetical education is an important dimension in the formation of identity in deafblind people. Aesthetics in this regard has to be understood broadly as sense perception together with the expression which the deafblind person gives it. It is important that every single person can express himself in his own terms.

When we use the aesthetic perspective as part of basis for the co-operation with the students, we find at least two important consequences for teaching and learning:

working together with deafblind adults, is not just about compensating for functional disabilities. We have to look at the human being behind the handicap and give this person the opportunity to grow and demonstrate self expression; the deafblind person must have the opportunity to have sensory experiences, refine these experiences, and develop ways of expressing them. In this way it will be possible for other people to relate to the artistic expressions of the deafblind person. In other words, a communication is established.

Back to the water sculpture. Is this really art, the father asked me. What is most important, the process or the product? The process that involves co-operation in creating the sculpture as well as the individual contributions really is important. The
product is important as it contributes to communication and the common culture.

At our centre the adults have a range of ways to develop different aesthetical modes of self expression. If they want to, they can work artistically in the sheltered workshop, but in addition there are opportunities to work on longer term projects
including theatre work with professional actors. One such project was the development of a play in which sound effects and music were used and shadow- theatre was also part of the performance.

The deafblind perspective.

One consequence of working together with deafblind adults is that we have recognised that our job is not just about compensating for functional disabilities. We have to look at the person behind the handicap and give this person the opportunity
to grow and show self expression.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has tackled the same question. He says: “If you understand the secret of forgetting yourself, while talking with another person, you have found the best way to learn what this other person is all about”.

When we work with theatre, for example, we have the opportunity to get to know one another. This is a good way to be together as it involves a lot of learning such as imitation, co-operation, and involvement in social situations.

It is also important for both deafblind and non-deafblind participants that it is fun, and at the same time an opportunity to share and learn new things about each other!

Music is another medium for sharing and learning creatively. Now we also look at music not just from the educational or therapeutic view, but as a cultural experience. We all listen to music, it is a powerful medium and deafblind people experience
music, sound, and vibrations in their own way.

Freedom, Self Expression and Identity.

In an old Nordic sense the concept of freedom is the same as having a “whole spirit”. We believe that deafblind culture derives from creativity which helps to develop strong personal identity, and as a result a better quality of life.

A sense of identity is linked with the concept of freedom. If you don’t have an identity, you don’t have the basis for freedom and independence, and to be equal with other people in a cultural context.

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