Including Disability in the Conversation
Rebecca Klein September 29, 2018
Including Disability in the Conversation
It was April of 2018, and I was a month away from graduating college, where I had studied both music performance and creative writing. Although I loved performing, practicing, reading, and writing most of every day, a performance career didn't seem viable, nor did a freelance writing career—neither seemed to fit my personality quite right. While thinking about my future, I was drawn back to my passion for accessibility, which I had pursued throughout college and wanted to keep integral to my career. To stay immersed in the arts but also learn about working for a large organization, I decided to explore arts administration. When I applied for and landed a summer internship in the Accessibility department at Lincoln Center, I was ecstatic. The internship was the perfect opportunity.
My passion for accessibility, though lifelong, was strengthened during my time in college. As a student at Oberlin College and Conservatory, I was surrounded by social justice initiatives. People discussed, debated, protested, and advocated. People cared, and they cared deeply. Though I sometimes disagreed with what was said, I was always inspired by the passion around me. However, I often found myself in a predicament: the conversations were important and necessary, but disability was nearly always left out. In rare moments of inclusion, I noticed that disability often hung as an afterthought next to other diversity topics, similar to a haphazard ramp added to the back of a building. The contradiction was profound; after all, about twenty percent of the population is estimated to live with a disability, and this number is suspected to be severely underreported. How could such an important topic be so excluded? During my sophomore year of college, I decided to make it my job to include disability in the conversation.
For four years, I worked for Oberlin's Office of Disability Services as a Student Accessibility Advocate. With other student advocates, I met with faculty, staff, students, and the board of trustees to push for a more accessible and equitable campus. We attended conferences and worked with professors to ensure that principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) were incorporated into their curricula and classroom principles; we organized social events so that students with disabilities could connect with one another; and we guided Oberlin's Office of Disability Services toward a social justice model rather than the previous medical model, which to many students made attaining accommodations inaccessible. Though change was slow, we created spaces for dialogue and broadened conversation.
My internship gave me time to reflect on what motivates and excites me, and also on what challenges and confounds me; sometimes these are one and the same.
As Lincoln Center's Accessibility intern, I witnessed how a large arts organization approaches accessibility. The Accessibility department at Lincoln Center is part of the Guest Services team, which oversees guest experiences across all points of guest interaction. This means that in addition to planning accessibility-specific programming, the Access team also works to ensure that guests with disabilities can enjoy all of Lincoln Center's programs—whether they are explicitly designed for people with disabilities or not. By merging accessibility and guest services, more LCPA staff members help increase accessibility; more people involved means stronger support for creating equitable guest experiences.
My internship was a fantastic combination of accessibility and guest services. I participated in verbal description and ASL tours, learning not only about designing accessible tours for people who are blind/low vision or D/deaf/hard of hearing, but also about creating stimulating and enjoyable tours for all guests regardless of ability. I also learned about Lincoln Center's access programs, such as Lincoln Center Moments, a performance series for individuals with dementia and their caregivers, and Passport to the Arts, for children with disabilities and their families. However, working with the Access Ambassadors was my favorite experience. Every Monday for six weeks, I traveled with the Access team to a nearby JCC to work with a group of eight students with developmental disabilities—the Access Ambassadors. The Access team held weekly classes dedicated to learning about Lincoln Center and its summer programming, communication and guest services skills, and careers in the arts. After a training period, we started performance shifts in Damrosch Park for Midsummer Night Swing and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Together, we greeted guests, gave directions, distributed brochures, and answered questions.
Watching the Access Ambassadors perform their shift duties, I was reminded of many of my own challenges with communication. Tasks that many people find simple, such as saying hello to someone, giving directions, or letting a person know where to find the closest restroom, were daunting for me while growing up with a stutter. I have retained my stutter into adulthood, and even now, when the words don't come out how I would like, these tasks prove difficult. However, what I have realized is that each interaction is an opportunity for education. Perhaps the person with whom I'm speaking has never received directions for the bathroom from someone who stutters profoundly on the letter B. Maybe he or she has never asked a question to a person who is neurodiverse and wears headphones to muffle the auditory stimulation around them. My shifts with the Access Ambassadors gave me a chance to reflect on these challenges and to witness how LCPA staff and guests could learn from working and interacting with neurodiverse individuals.
Though twice a week I spent performance shifts with the Access Ambassadors, my other guest services shifts were with neurotypical volunteers, interns, and LCPA staff. During these shifts, I helped both able-bodied guests with general inquiries as well as guests with disabilities in using the accessible entrance, finding an accommodation for an accessible seat, and distributing assistive listening devices. Throughout the summer, I had the unique opportunity of watching numerous teams (Guest Services, Access, Front of House, and Programming) work together every night to plan and execute large-scale events—no small feat in a city as vibrant and busy as New York.
The guest services experience was invaluable in teaching me about effective communication. Often, the work environment was noisy and unpredictable, and for various reasons guests were sometimes unhappy. Moments of tension were challenging for me. My stuttering causes involuntary secondary characteristics that affect how I move my mouth, face, and eyes. I cannot hide how I speak unless I choose not to speak, which is rarely a healthy option. Due to this challenge, I viewed the guest services experience as a serious opportunity not only to communicate in an effective and engaging way, but also to stutter openly with guests who were not always kind. Though I initially was interested in the internship because of the accessibility focus, I found the guest services aspect to be equally educational and important for my professional development.
As the end of my internship neared, I felt bolstered by the opportunities and experiences I had at Lincoln Center, and have been fortunate enough to stay on as the Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow. I am thrilled to continue working with a new cohort of Access Ambassadors, as well as assisting Accessibility staff with Lincoln Center Moments and Passport to the Arts. My internship gave me time to reflect on what motivates and excites me, and also on what challenges and confounds me; sometimes these are one and the same. Though I wish more people cared about accessibility as much as I do, I am motivated by the fact that there is significant room for growth. Before my internship at Lincoln Center, I did not even realize that some organizations have employees dedicated to access, let alone an entire department. Progress has been slow yet measurable since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and I am inspired by the people I have met who have created careers focused on accessibility. A mere twenty-eight years ago, many of these careers did not exist. Though room for growth can be frustrating and tiresome, it gives me a powerful reason to wake up and speak up every single day.
Rebecca Klein is the 2018–19 Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.