As April ends—and with
it so-called Autism Awareness month—I thought it would be appropriate to discuss
discrimination against people on the spectrum and how it seems to apply to my
beloved daughter, Sarah. Early last
month, Sarah auditioned to sing the national anthem at graduation as part of a
choral group at her college. Given that she has perfect pitch and tremendous
range as a lyrical soprano, it was both surprising and disappointing that Sarah
was not selected. To those readers who
know both me and my daughter, I think you’d agree that I’m extremely objective
about Sarah’s strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully,
everyone else will give me the benefit of the doubt.
I'm not a crazy mother who complains about
everything. I’ll start by saying that
the autism support group at Sarah’s university has provided excellent academic
support: motivated and patient tutors, a variety of helpful accommodations as
well as strong advocacy with professors in courses that Sarah found
difficult. Without the attention and
dedication of these professionals, my daughter would not be collecting a B.A.
degree from this university or most other learning institutions in the next few weeks. That said, there is still a lot of work to be done by the university
toward integrating autistic spectrum students into the mainstream student body,
and offering them real (not “token”) opportunities to exhibit their talents
outside the classroom
While legislation on banning affirmative action in various
states is front page news, the articles never include any discussion about
students with disabilities. Isn’t it equally important to include disabled
students as it is to embrace all races and gender identities as part of a group? Don’t disabled students deserve representation as
much as any other minority in order to have an optimally diverse student body? The following email protesting my daughter’s
rejection was my small effort at affirmative action. (All names with asterisks have been changed).
My daughter, Sarah
Edelman,* auditioned for you to sing the national anthem at graduation, and by
now it's clear that she wasn't selected. This is deeply disappointing to
her and to me, especially given the fact that she is a senior graduating from
the university’s autism support program with a 3.6 average. More importantly,
my daughter is a lyrical soprano with perfect pitch and an extraordinary voice.
I understand--as does Sarah--that given the challenges of being on the autistic
spectrum and having learning disabilities, she was never going to succeed in
her auditions to be a musical theater major. She will never be an
actress in one of Shakespeare's plays or appear on
Broadway. That did not stop her from auditioning, despite never being called
back. But why not allow her this one last opportunity, and include her very
special and beautiful voice at graduation?
We don't expect her to
be a soloist for Penema,* but I find it unfathomable that you would not WANT to
include her in your choral group. I have listened to many of the
singers in Laura’s class perform along side Sarah, and although many of
them may be more proficient at acting, no one has a better voice,
comes better prepared, or learns songs faster than Sarah. Even after
Laura Greco* (one of your very own professors) recommended her and made you
aware of her challenges and strengths, you haven't responded.
However, I find it hard
to believe (and hypocritical) that a university like Penema, which supposedly
values diversity--enough to include an innovative and successful program to
support high-functioning students on the spectrum--would not include a student
like my daughter to sing the national anthem.
Last week I attended
"Training the Talent of Artists with Autism," where a world famous author
and innovator with Asperger’s Syndrome was the featured speaker, and the art of
Penema’s students with autism and other artists on the spectrum was exhibited
and auctioned for the benefit of Penema.
Just imagine my
frustration as a mother in trying to nurture the musical talents of my daughter
at a school that refuses to recognize or include her in her last opportunity to
show the world what she can do best.
I don't expect to change
your mind. But maybe next year, or the year after, you'll think differently
and realize that you have acted against the spirit of diversity which Penema
supposedly embraces. I am sick to death of hearing about diversity--all the
efforts to include and respect minorities, sexual identities and preferences
etc.--when those efforts fall short of including all the strengths and
abilities of those on the spectrum (not just art which can be auctioned off for
money). To me it's all just lip service....
As Laura could tell
you--and probably did--my daughter shows up, follows directions, picks up a
song after hearing it once, and is fearless in front of an audience. In
addition to working with Laura, she's had professional voice training for many
years and sang in the choral group at Landmark for two years. Sarah would
really bring something special to the stage at graduation and give you as good
or better performance than those you have already chosen, while at the
same time demonstrating the school's commitment to students with
For purposes of fund
raising, it would also be an excellent PR move for parents of kids in the
growing autism support program to know their kids were being warmly
welcomed into the Penema community and given well-deserved opportunities
outside the classroom. If word gets out that our kids get opportunities at
Penema that they can't get elsewhere, it would only help to attract greater
support from those families currently enrolled in the autism support program as
well as the families of alumni.
I would love for you to
reconsider and somehow find a place for Sarah. It would mean the
world to her in a world where opportunities for people like her are few and far
between. However, if it's too late to include her, I hope--at
the very least--to receive the courtesy of a candid response.
Thank you for your
The reply came 9 minutes later. I suspect my email made
someone in the administration nervous.
“Handle that woman before she makes trouble,” I can just hear some dean
saying. Did they throw me a bone or a hunk of gristle? You decide…
Thank you so much for your email. Sarah is a great person
and very talented. However, she was not selected to be the singer for the
undergraduate ceremony. I had many auditions by students. I
apologize for not getting back to you, the students were informed if they were
selected they would be contacted. We are putting together a pre-video for
the audience and a student leader is working on that video-perhaps Sarah would
like to be a part of that. If so, she can contact Dr. So and So,* AVP and
oversees commencement. I do know that a student on the spectrum has won
the trustee award on the Arrowville* campus and will speaking at our annual
Board of Trustees Meeting.
Lastly, do you think she might like to sing at the freshmen
convocation on Sept 2nd on the NYC campus? Please let me know and my
Sarah accepted the consolation prize of singing for freshman AFTER she graduates. (It’s better than nothing).
However, in writing back to Carolina, I couldn’t help feeling puzzled and
disappointed. If Sarah is talented
enough to sing in September, why not in May at graduation when it would be so
much more meaningful to her and her family?
And why tell me that another student on the spectrum has won an
award? How is that relevant? Am I
supposed to feel better that another student with autism was honored for some
other reason, while my daughter was overlooked?
Or is this supposed to prove that the school honors the spirit of
diversity because a student with
disabilities won an award?
Yesterday my daughter was notified
via email that she will graduate with distinction because her GPA is above
3.5. Numbers don’t lie and our daughter
can’t be denied.
Bravo, Sarah! Sing
your heart out in September. Maybe next
April your alma mater will be listening to auditions with greater awareness.
Labels: affirmative action, Asperger's Syndrome, autism, Autism Awareness, Broadway, choral groups, college graduation, discrimination, diversity, Landmark College, lyrical sopranos, perfect pitch, Shakespeare, singing