PhD candidate Noel King is pretty unique in the field of Art Therapy, but she hopes that won’t be the case for long. As one of only three practicing deaf art therapists she’s aware of, Noel is on a journey to define how this form of mental health care can be used to support the deaf and hard of hearing community.
“Based on my personality, my lived experiences as a deaf person, I will try to use the preexisting psychological tools and art therapy tools and use a deaf and hard of hearing lens on it,” says Noel. “That’s my challenge.”
Born in South Korea, Noel was adopted by deaf parents and brought to the United States when she was five months old. She always loved art, and after studying psychology as an undergraduate at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., decided to combine the two at an art therapy master’s program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
A fitting form of expression
Art therapy is uniquely suited to the deaf community, says Noel.
“Art is very visual and deaf people are visual learners. That’s why I became interested in this field.”
Most deaf people are born to hearing parents, Noel says, and it can be difficult to express the nuances of their emotions through sign language. Plus, when seeking a therapist, the options are sparse.
Few mental health care professionals know sign language, so those seeking therapy often need an interpreter — not necessarily a comfortable option when discussing private matters.
“Hearing people can do dance therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, etc … but deaf people don’t have that kind of variety,” Noel explains.
She knows of only two practices in the United States that are run by deaf therapists, one in Maryland and the other in Colorado. Both offer traditional talk therapy, which is very useful, but Noel believes art therapy can tap into the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing in different ways.
“Sometimes (deaf people) are not able to find the right words to say how they feel, and art therapy can be a way to unlock that and lessen the frustration,” she explains. Beyond communicating with others, “art can be used as a tool to make connections, to use for self-exploration, develop a sense of identity and self-esteem.” It also opens ways for deaf people to express their personalities and backgrounds.
“It’s a way to remove barriers and to celebrate their identities and cultures,” she says. “Art therapy gives them the freedom to explore in a safe and secure space.”
‘Building a Bridge’
Within the deaf community, Noel has practiced art therapy with adults struggling with abuse, inner-city teenagers and, most recently, kids who have experienced complex trauma and language deprivation through her current work at the Walden School’s Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Massachusetts. Along the way, she’s become a one-woman advocate for deaf art therapy and a resource for a handful of deaf art therapy graduate students who have reached out to her, even as she navigates her own practice in the still relatively new branch of expressive arts therapy.
In fall 2021, Noel, who aspires to become a professor, presented her research, “Building a Bridge: Connecting Deaf Children to Art Therapy,” at the American Art Therapy Conference, becoming, she believes, the first deaf person to speak in the organization’s 52-year history. She believes it could be a step to opening doors for more deaf art therapists and encourage hearing therapists to consider how their practices may become more inclusive and welcoming for deaf and hard of hearing patients.
“I do hope it plants a seed in people’s minds. This can be a new kind of therapy,” she says. “Really this is just the beginning.”
For more information on Noel King, visit her website.
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Lesley University’s Expressive Therapies PhD provides you with the opportunity for in-depth study, artistic growth, and professional development regardless of your arts therapy specialization in a low-residency program with year-round support from faculty who are innovators in their field.
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