CAA: An Innovative Lifelong Educational Experience

College of Adaptive Arts provides an equitable, lifelong collegiate experience to adults with special needs who historically have not had access. Founded in 2009 with 12 students in 1 musical theatre class, CAA has grown operationally 1608% to serving consistently 128 adults in 1-hour distinct adaptive college classes within 10 Schools of Instruction: Art, Business, Communications, Dance, Health & Wellness, Library Arts, Music, Science & Technology, Theatre, and TV/Film.

The premise is that any adult who wants to continue learning, growing, and becoming the best versions of themselves has a safe and engaging space to do so. Adults only sign up for classes that they have an interest in. There are no tests, grades or papers, and homework assignments are always optional. Adults ages 18+ are welcome to enroll who are still learning to read, write, and even to speak. Social cognitive skill-building happens in each class due to the nature of the ARTS Curriculum – allowing adults to Access new content, Respond to new concepts, Transfer to an activity/practice, and to Sustain new skills in long-term memory by individual sharing & showcasing.

In March of 2020 when the Shelter in Place orders in Santa Clara County were put into effect, CAA was well-poised to take courses fully online. They had been developing and utilizing distance learning thanks to an infrastructure build-out grant from Adobe Foundation in 2016. CAA was able to fully embrace Zoom and take all 58 distinct courses online that last week of the Winter Quarter. Spring Quarter brought more adults hungry to continue learning, and the Summer Quarter which began July 6 has enrolled even more adults and expanded online course offerings to over 70 distinct classes each week.

CAA’s vision is to become as widespread and accessible in education that Special Olympics so effectively provides with sports. To this end, CAA has entered into its first historic partnership with West Valley College, whose Board of Trustees voted unanimously in July of 2020 to allow CAA to use portable space to continue the program while becoming a work-study/living lab/leadership training model for community college students. CAA believes this model of expanded college education will be able to fit on any and every campus of higher learning one day.

CAA Student Ambassadors are ready to give Zoom tours to anyone who would like to learn more about this innovative educational model of lifelong learning.

Dr. Pamela Lindsay: Univ of Phoenix Blog

College of Adaptive Arts proudly shares University of Phoenix’s latest Blog Post on Dr. Pamela Lindsay, Ed.D/CI, Co-Founder & Dean of Instruction:

Alum launches College of Adaptive Arts to provide equitable education experience for adults with special needs

Caregiver holding a senior woman's hands

A George Bernard Shaw quote was a catalyst to something life-changing for Dr. Pamela Lindsay. It reads, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” She includes it in her email signature as a reminder of the important work she is doing to educate adults with special needs.

In 2009, she helped launch the nonprofit College of the Adaptive Arts (CAA) in San Jose[1] to provide a college option for adults with disabling conditions who have aged out of traditional educational support.

Today, CAA has more than 100 students aged 18 and up taking more than 40 course offerings each quarter among nine schools of instruction.[2] CAA degrees are nontransferable and do not prepare students for job placement or a vocation. Instead, the curriculum is about feeding their curiosity and providing each individual with creative ways to participate individually, in groups and as leaders to show mastery of a concept.

Dr. Lindsay believes everyone deserves an education and CAA was designed to give those without traditional pathways access to a college experience.

“Our students have a hunger for learning, and they want to keep learning more. So, we give them that platform to explore what is interesting to them,” Said Dr. Lindsay, who earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, leadership in special education at UOPX. “For our students, we must engage them to lock what they are learning into their memory. It’s the same key cognitive development concepts needed in all areas of life.”

The idea for CAA was set in motion over a decade ago, when Dr. Lindsay and co-founder DeAnna Pursai, participated in a theater and choir fundraiser for students with disabilities. Many of the students who performed that night were “aging out” of the supportive programs, as state-sponsored support for children with special needs lasts through age 22. After that, educational opportunities are limited to those who can meet a college’s admissions standards without modification.

Dr. Lindsay and Pursai reached out to families to see if they might have adults with disabilities interested in classes in the arts. At first, a handful of special needs students interested in the arts joined music classes hosted in Dr. Lindsay’s home. From there, classes grew into a space for adults with disabilities to learn to live a full and empowered life as contributing members of the community through an arts-focused education.

They found they had the support and a solid base of students and families interested in participating. They needed a plan to turn their classes into a college.

Despite both having a passion for special education, the duo decided to take a divide-and-conquer approach to build CAA.[3][4] Pursai took on the role of executive director and pursued training to learn more about finance, business building and navigating funding sources. As dean of instruction for the College, Dr. Lindsay searched for a doctoral program to create the academic infrastructure for CAA.

She quickly learned that developing a curriculum that worked for these students would be difficult. She believed that it couldn’t be modeled after existing curriculum. She felt that it needed to be built from the ground up and focused on leadership and applied learning. Finding the right terminal degree to meet her needs was a challenge.

She discovered University of Phoenix’s doctoral program, with an educational framework built around the Scholar, Practitioner, Leader (SPL) model. The model focuses on lifelong-learning, leadership and positively impacting communities and workplaces.[1]

Through each course of her doctorate, Dr. Lindsay created materials and brought to life the vision she had for CAA’s curriculum. The result was ARTS, a curriculum model that builds on four key cognitive-developmental concepts, modeled after SPL. ARTS stands for: Accessing concepts, Responding to concepts, Transferring to independent understanding, and Sharing through leadership.

The University’s SPL model is designed to allow doctoral candidates to connect theory, learning and practice within an individual’s field so that thought leaders become producers of change.[2] Dr. Lindsay incorporated this into her curriculum focused on leadership and application. Programs are concentrated on the arts and each student’s learning is based on mastery of concepts and sharing it as a leader.

Pursai said she feels blessed to have Pam at the helm of curriculum and instruction for CAA.

“Pam is a true pioneer in her field. She established a curricular model and helped establish new procedures and processes to enable workflow to be streamlined, professional and easy to access,” she said. “Pam is so steadfastly committed to giving adults with intellectual disabilities a safe and engaging educational space to continue learning, growing and becoming the best versions of themselves.”

At CAA, meaningful participation in a course and demonstrating growth based on the ARTS model earns them credit. Students have the opportunity to earn a non-transferrable undergraduate degree when they complete 60 credits and move on to a 120-credit non-transferrable graduate degree and a 240-credit non-transferrable post-graduate degree.[3]

Dr. Lindsay is excited about what the future holds for CAA and its students. In addition to embracing the George Bernard Shaw quote, she and Pursai also march forward with the mantra “once a learner, always a learner,” and continue to seek out connections and networks of opportunity to grow the college.

“We serve one of the few groups not able to access education in an equitable way,” she said. “And we are finding more ways to do that.”





Reflections from the School of Art Director :)

It was just expected years ago that I go to art college. I painted and drew on anything that didn’t move, so when I began my college career at the Academy of Art University is San Francisco, I dreamed my painting future would be like that of Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, or Mark Rothko without their unexpected endings. Not so.

During my last semester of college, I visited Creativity Explored in SF. The variety of artwork created by adult artists with developmental and hidden disabilities inside this large and colorful studio was breathtaking! These accomplished artists’ paintings, drawings and sculptures were so pure and moving. I spent some time drawing with a woman who was nonverbal, but she spoke loudly. Her colorful drawings, expressive line-work, and beaming smile said everything she could not. I left school that day, changed in my ideas about who else can create art, but more importantly, how much these artists touched my heart.

Jump forward 9 years and through divine intervention and an amazing friend, I met two passionate and courageous women who were starting a college in San Jose for adults with differing abilities. They needed an art instructor and an art department and wanted to know if I was interested. To say I was excited couldn’t nearly describe how I felt. I experienced that heartwarming sensation I felt all those years ago and I knew that this was my tribe.

Now as we celebrate our 10th Anniversary as a college for adult individuals with differing abilities, I can’t help but reflect over CAA’s monumental growth. We’ve nurtured countless classes in the arts, health and wellness, communications and more in many locations. Each move, bringing new experiences to a population of individuals who might not ever have had the opportunity to be creative and express themselves in art forms such as dance, music, or art. For four years, our fearless professors set up classes out of the trunks of their cars, packed them up to travel to and from generous businesses with a little bit of space and a shared belief in our vision for the college which allowed us to grow.

Established colleges around the country for the most part have offered typical adults opportunities in the arts for decades, becoming artists (like myself), actors, writers and entertainers who influence our culture, enrich our lives and fill up social media. But those colleges must have begun from humble beginnings… much like College of Adaptive Arts. Right?

When I see CAA students eyes light up at a new song they will learn or a non-verbal student try their hardest to record a sound for a clay animation voice over, I can’t help but feel that these novel experiences are reaching the hearts and minds of our students just like today’s typical college learners.

Thank you to the families for recognizing that our adults too have dreams of becoming future creatives that make up and contribute to society. To think that only decades ago, people with developmental differences, physical challenges and the like were not only thought as burdens, but also hidden away from society is so heartbreaking. CAA students have so much to offer and share with the world in ways that might look different from typical college students and adults, but still just as valuable and unique.

Each week, I get the privilege to bask in CAA students unconfined joy, witness unconditional friendships, and unbridled eagerness to try and try again as all lessons we can learn from. And most importantly, we all need each other to do this.

All of our college communities deserve seasons to be learners, teachers, mentors and friends.

Recently, I had the unexpected and exciting chance to go back to Creativity Explored and talk about art and autism. I could never have done this if I hadn’t experienced all of these roles just because of one chance opportunity over 16 years ago in a college class which completely changed my life’s purpose, career, and my heart.


Director, School of Art
College of Adaptive Arts

Honoring Kim Rains’ Legacy

Kim Rains was an exceptional human being.  Kim was kind, caring, funny, intelligent, passionate, visionary.  I was looking back this week on all of the videos she helped produce over the years for the college.  She did so very much for us to grow this collegiate model of education since the very beginning.  She was in almost all of our CreaTV PSAs, in our original marketing videos, she was CAA’s first valedictorian, she gave the student speech at our Giving Breakfast in May.  She was the interviewer for Ms. Wheelchair CA, Ms. Wheelchair America, and Richard Alexandre Rittelmann, a world-renowned European opera singer.  She would often contribute amazing ideas for new classes, new dance choreography, and more opportunities to showcase abilities in the community.  She was a true leader.

I would love to watch her at a site when a guest would walk through our doors.  More times than not, she would stop what she was doing, make a bee-line to the guest, one hand firmly thrust out for a handshake mid-stride while the other hand firmly on her trach as she marched across the floor to introduce herself and let the guest know that she was a student leader and ambassador to our college.  I would love to be on her heels as she often caught guests a bit off-guard with a follow-up that Kim is our very first valedictorian of our college.  I would love to watch the faces of each guest when they were trying to reconcile what they were seeing and hearing, and you for the overwhelming majority, they would break into a wide grin of sheer joy.

In one of our very first marketing videos, she stated that she wanted to start her own ministry.  Then, in the last video I took of her when she visited our art faire on November 4, she had said she was sorry for ministering, at which time I said you can minister to us forever.  She said, Ok, and proceeded to say this world is about Faith, Love, and Caring.

I believe that Kim was able to realize her life’s dream of starting her own ministry in the short time I think she knew she had to share with us on this earth.  I am not a very religious being by nature, but when I was in her presence, I very clearly felt a divine force that was simply incredible to experience.

I think at the very fundamental level that force is love, and it still strongly runs through me each time I remember Kim’s wide smile and liberal chuckle where she would crinkle up her eyes and heave her shoulders in laughter.  She would often tell me, DeAnna, you are the best teacher in the world.  And I sensed that she meant it with all of her being.  I felt so safe, so inspired, so loved.  When I was around Kim I felt like that was the best moment of my life – that nothing else mattered except for the human bond taking place at that very moment.  I believe I was feeling unconditional love and caring, and I believe that Kim knew exactly what she was doing to bring out the very best in each of us.  Kim most definitely achieved her goal of starting her own ministry.

As I look at the vibrant picture of Kim holding that fan, I hear Kim continue to minister to me every day.  Through this picture I hear the message, “You’re on the right track, De & Pam – don’t give up.”  It’s great that adults with disabilities have jobs in this world where they are holding brooms or cleaning cloths or pushing carts.  These are noble and essential tools.  However, our true contributions and gifts to the world are when you give an adult with a disability a microphone or a paintbrush or a prop such as a fan.” That’s when their true essence can shine through, and we are all better human beings through experiencing their joy and abilities.

And I think often to myself how hard it is to keep going sometimes with this college model, and how often I fail in my attempt to get others to understand.  But then I look at this photo and I hear her words, I feel her love, I sense her ministry, “You’re on the right track.  I got up everyday for 39 years when often the world was not on my side, and you can do it to.” And I thank Kim for sharing her vision with us.  And I reaffirm my pledge to her and to you that we will not give up showcasing the authentic abilities, gifts, and passions of adults of all abilities.  I love you, Kim Rains – you are my true hero forever and always.

-DeAnna Pursai

It’s Your Time to Shine

by Sharon Lea, CAA Professor

It’s your time to shine
society has come a long way
sometimes you have been overlooked
some would simply turn away

People would lose interest
if speech was slow or slurred
instead of taking a few minutes of time
everyone wants to be heard

They couldn’t take a moment
to see inside your beautiful mind
maybe not the quickest one
but ideas, opinions of every kind

People often averted their eyes
So afraid of what they didn’t understand
if they only asked, you would tell them
simply ask and take my hand

They would see a wheelchair
or the tremor in both of your hands
thinking your mind wasn’t capable
to learn about geography or foreign lands

It’s your time to shine
to experience all of what life can be
society has come a long way
for everyone to be happy and free!

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