Sunderland students harness the power of art as a form of therapy to help people with disabilities

Two students with disabilities are using art as a form of therapy to help enhance the lives of other disabled people.

Thursday, 16th September 2021, 11:26 am

Gary Nicholson and Kathryn Barnett met as mature students when they were studying art degrees at the University of Sunderland.

Gary, who became paraplegic in 2009 following an operation to remove a tumour from his spinal cord, said: “I was interested in the idea of using art as therapy because that is how it felt to me.

“I had been a joiner for almost 30 years of my life. One day I went into hospital for an operation and the next I was paraplegic.

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Students Kathryn Barnett and Gary Nicholson have been using art as a form of therapy to help other people with disabilities. Picture: DAVID WOOD

“But it was through art, and coming to university to study, that I began to understand the important role it can play in helping people with all types of disabilities.”

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With support from the University’s Enterprise Place scheme, Gary received guidance on how to start his own venture to assist and support others. He established Regeneration NE, a not-for-profit business offering art interventions and support to people living with all types of disabilities.

In 2019, Gary brought on board Kathryn, who has been a wheelchair user since 2013, to help him with the initiative.

Kathryn said: “For wheelchair users and clinically extremely vulnerable people, the past 18 months has been both isolating and frightening.

“So we put this lived experience to good use, supporting others with distance learning projects and virtual exhibitions. We’ve secured funding from Arts Council England and worked extensively with the Cultural Spring.

"Our Butterfly Project 2020, was brought to national attention as a case study in a Creative People and Places scheme report.”

On August 12, the pair opened SALT - Sunderland Arts, Learning & Training - in Ryhope and they have also been instrumental in the establishment of Horizon, a new ethical arts centre with studio spaces, based in Seaham.

It has been a cathartic and purposeful journey for the pair who, after using art to challenge their own obstacles, are now sharing their success with others.

Kathryn said: “Disability changed our lives. Our University of Sunderland experience was truly life-changing, and now we want to use what we have learned to change the lives of others.”

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