Brain injury crafts are so much more than art

Listen to this post: 

I introduced you to Brain Injury Voices from Maine and one of the members who’s an artist, Hilary Zayed, on this blog a while back. Now it’s time for a very exciting update. The group is supporting many other peers with brain injury in arts and crafts, and the place is just about overflowing with artists now.

I simply can’t do any better than this article about it called “Wise advice on how to craft a new life after brain injury” by Diane Atwood. (Side note: I will never get tired of puns and wordplays around arts and crafts!) In a nutshell, the support group is now making crafts. And it’s opening each of them up to a whole new way of looking at themselves and their accomplishments, step by step by step.

One thing the article brings up a few times is decision-making. Crafts–and in the case of this article, earrings–don’t make themselves. You have to choose what colors, shapes, sizes, and pieces go into each item. While that might not sound like much to decide on to some people, decision-making can be very hard for a lot of folks with brain injury.

Here’s the most exciting part to me: it’s a group where brain injury survivors are expected to make decisions. In this group, it’s assumed that they can make a decision. Even that assumption can be a rarity in some people’s lives. After enough time being told you can’t decide things for yourself because you’re not good at it (or you’re just not given the chance to), some people believe that and stop even trying. Some people don’t have the structure in their lives that they need to be able to narrow things down so they can make a meaningful decision about something. And then they believe they can’t do it, when really they only need some accommodations.

Because Carole Starr, who leads the crafting group, is a TBI survivor herself, she knows what it feels like. There must be an immediate sense of trust because she’s not some outsider expert giving them a  hollow pep talk. She’s lived it. So she knows how to set up the experiences so that the crafters have chances to make their own decisions and go home with a pair of sparkling earrings as icing on the cake.

Seven smiling people stand together holding up their new handmade earrings.[Image description: Seven smiling people stand together holding up their new handmade earrings. Photo from]




It seems like a great time to bring up the title of the documentary again. “Who Am I To Stop It” refers specifically to that creative drive and spirit within us. As you’ll see in the Diane Atwood article linked above, maybe some of the crafters in this group aren’t making something as intricate or complicated as they did before, but they are making something beautiful. And they made it. They have it in them all the time, even if it doesn’t always have a chance to show. I absolutely applaud Carole and the folks at Brain Injury Voices and New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland for having this arts group. Physical and cognitive rehab isn’t everyone’s main goal, after all.

All disability communities have to face a lot of stigma. The big one that crosses all groups seems to be one of can’t. A wheelchair user can’t dance. A blind person can’t be a photographer. Someone with an intellectual disability can’t be a manager in a business. Can’t, can’t, can’t. I can pretty much guarantee that most of that isn’t coming from the disabled people themselves. Many of us don’t wake up each day and think, “Well, I’m useless!” And for those of us who do, that’s probably not what we want to be thinking. And I bet we got that idea from someone else or because we’re lacking in access, accommodations, and a supportive and inclusive environment.

But when it comes to acquired disabilities from brain injury, we are faced with a real dilemma. Many of us can recall exactly how productive or good at things we were. And suddenly, we’re not good at those same things. In fact, we somehow also seem kinda bad at things we didn’t even notice we were doing before the injury, like keeping track of time or not getting lost in our own homes. When you lose something, it’s a big change to your way of life. Something as easy-going, structured, social, and low stakes as a crafting group seems the perfect place to reconnect. You may not be reconnecting with a level of skill you used to have. But you can reconnect to the truth that you’re valuable and valued, that you have ideas and decisions worth making, and that sparkly earrings are something a lot of people love to get as gifts. When they find out you made the earrings for them? Talk about some icing on a cake.