VSA Festival goes virtual to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of individuals with disabilities

Every year around this time, OCDE and VSA Orange County team up to spotlight the artistic achievements of individuals with disabilities.

Children dancing

The VSA Festival is a free, daylong event that’s typically held at MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana on a Saturday in April. But California’s stay-at-home directive and national social distancing measures mean the 44th annual celebration will look a bit different.

Instead of an in-person experience, organizers have created a virtual festival, featuring links to a 200-piece art gallery, 15 performance videos, video messages from special guests and educational activities to help students learn more about individuals with disabilities.

The virtual celebration launches today, April 18, and can be found here:


“This is our 44th year presenting our festival, and just the thought of canceling It, completely, broke our hearts,” VSA Orange County Director Marleena Barber said.

“The goal of the festival is to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of individuals with disabilities by providing the opportunity for our artists to be seen while raising awareness and education about the arts and disability community. I think our ‘Virtual Festival’ website is still able to achieve that, even though we cannot gather in person.”

Opportunities to showcase talents

The VSA Festival has become a signature event for Orange County, giving students and adults associated with special education programs throughout the region a chance to showcase their talents in creative writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts. The day includes hands-on workshops, demonstrations, performances and a visual art exhibit that spans the mall and serves all ages and all disabilities.

VSA festival crowd from aboveActor William Allen Young (“Code Black, “Moesha”) has emceed the event’s opening ceremonies for more than three decades. He’ll be back, but this time he’s appearing in a special video message. American Sign Language interpreter Paula Dunn, who has accompanied Young for more than 30 years, will also appear in a video segment.

The online festival will additionally feature poetry and songs by improv artist Jessica Hayes and a site-wide scavenger hunt that encourages students to look through the art gallery and view performances.

“By going virtual this year, we might actually reach more people than we would in just one festival day, and that is exciting,” Barber said.

This year’s participating organizations include the Academy of Music for the Blind, ASPIRE Creative Arts Program, Braille Institute, Creative Identity, Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges, the OC Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center and Straight UP Abilities.

Part of Imagination Celebration

With a network of affiliates, the international VSA organization was founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to increase access to the arts and provide additional educational opportunities. Each year, 7 million people of all ages and abilities participate in VSA programs in every aspect of the arts, including visual, performing and literary arts.

VSA Orange County began its program in 1976. Sponsored by OCDE and hosted annually by MainPlace Mall, the local festival is part of the countywide Imagination Celebration and supported by organizations including Arts Orange County and the Council for Exceptional Children, Orange County Chapter, No. 188.