This summer, Accessibility at Lincoln Center launched the Access Ambassador Initiative, a new program to provide hands-on work experience in the arts to students with disabilities. Lincoln Center has had a longstanding commitment to providing accessible and welcoming opportunities for audience members with disabilities, and we have recently focused our efforts on extending this outreach to include guest artists and staff members with disabilities. In response to the high rate of unemployment for people with disabilities, and designed to support the needs and build upon the strengths of young people with autism, the Access Ambassador Initiative provided a base of meaningful, and very fun, job experience.

Working in collaboration with New York City’s Department of Education’s District 75 Transition Office, we partnered with P94, the Spectrum School, which serves students with autism through a performing arts focus. Based on our existing Ambassador Program, through which volunteers greet guests and assist with Front-of-House at performances all over campus, my colleagues and I created a curriculum for job training and skill building. This training culminated in seven volunteer opportunities at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a free three-week music and dance festival that hosts thousands of visitors every night.

Accessibility staff worked with two fifteen-year-old students, Oscar and Ashley, over the course of five weeks. Both students had performed onstage in the past—appearing in their school's production of High School Musical Jr.—but Front-of-House was a new frontier for them. The first three training sessions took place at their school to introduce the students to the idea of the Ambassador program, the programming for Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and the terminology used by Front-of-House at performances. We created visual schedules to prepare the students for their shifts, and practiced various situations as guests and ambassadors to anticipate audience members' questions. These role-play scenarios presented opportunities to coach the students on how to be friendly and how to greet guests appropriately. After three training sessions, Oscar and Ashley took a tour of the campus and visited Damrosch Park to become familiar with the location.

"It was beautiful growth from day one—opening up socially for them, interacting with people appropriately, them feeling more comfortable, which was great."

Our team followed a predetermined pattern each evening for the first week of performances—providing a visual briefing for Oscar and Ashley, listing the times that they would work at three different posts, and attending the main Front-of-House briefing before the shift began. Each night, the Ambassadors were shadowed by a member of the Accessibility team as well as a teacher from their school. The teacher, Ms. Avery Orozco, admits that she had some nerves before the first shift:

"My only worry is always for them—how they’ll feel, whether they’ll be comfortable. Some people are understanding when students and people have disabilities and others aren’t, so I was always worried that they may encounter somebody who may not be as aware and kind. The world was my fear. But people were very nice and very kind, and it’s been a beautiful experience."

Ms. Avery Orozco was with Oscar and Ashley through every shift in the first week, and also took part in coaching the students.

"In the beginning they were a little bit leery, like Oscar would hand out brochures right on top of people so we had to teach him you have to them personal space, let them come in. And Ashley would take the brochure in the beginning and she would go, "Here." We spoke to her and explained that she should say, "Hi, here’s a brochure," and so she did that. So it was beautiful growth from day one—opening up socially for them, interacting with people appropriately, them feeling more comfortable, which was great."

My colleagues and I had some concern in the beginning about whether the students would have the energy for the entire program, but both Oscar and Ashley showed up for all seven shifts, rain or shine. Both students enjoyed working inside the house the most, where they stamped hands for guests who were planning on returning to their seats. As for the music, Oscar told us that he enjoyed the Okayafrica night the most, as well as Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca

On crowded nights, staff checked in with Oscar and Ashley to make sure they were not feeling nervous or overwhelmed. Both Oscar and Ashley expressed that they enjoyed the busier nights; they liked working on the long lines, and thought it good experience for future employment.

Our team noticed a big shift in the teenagers' independence over the course of the seven nights. Originally depending on staff to answer most questions, both Oscar and Ashley began to handle all guest interactions on their own, and took initiative to assist in situations. They began to take more control over their environment: Rather than simply sitting in the Information Tent while waiting for guests, the students began taking the time to organize the supplies and the brochures on display.

Their teacher, Ms. Avery Orozco, noted: "This gives them a chance to get experience with people who understand them, it gives them practice, it gives them the chance to see the things they may or may not like in the career world. The debriefing at the end of the night is amazing for that, because it helps them identify what they enjoy doing, so that when they go out for another job, they are able to say, 'Well, I remember doing that, I like that, so yes, I’d like to apply for that job,' so it allows for self-reflection as well as giving them experience, so I think it’s the best thing that could have happened."

When asked about the style of the program, she continued: "Everything was done with the utmost care. It was put together with such thought and clarity, it was amazing for them. My hat goes out to Ms. Hodge (Assistant Principal for P94) for giving students the opportunity to experience this, and to Lincoln Center for welcoming them."

Accessibility at Lincoln Center seeks to expand this program to reach new school partners during the coming school year. For more information, please contact [email protected] or 212.875.5375.

Katie Fanning is Coordinator, Guest Services & Accessibility, at Lincoln Center.