Creating a sensory-friendly campus



May 4, 2020

How we treat people is at the core of Jewish values. Leviticus 19:14 states “you shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” The Torah emphasizes that people with disabilities are part of the community and shouldn’t be treated differently. Jewish culture celebrates including and respecting everyone. This sentence in the Torah and Jewish culture connects to my goal to create a more inclusive campus at Sarah Lawrence College in New York through theater.

Before my senior year, the executive director of Hillels of Westchester asked me if I was interested in being a Ruderman Inclusion Ambassador. Through their campus Hillel, ambassadors reach out to the entire campus community, listening to students and faculty on ways to improve accessibility at their college.

Already an advocate for disability inclusion, and diversity, and wanting to become more involved with Hillel, I immediately accepted. Attending the training at Hillel International in D.C., I met other ambassadors and advocates, learned about past projects and brainstormed ideas for my own project. I knew I wanted to continue my disability and autism advocacy in the arts, bringing sensory-friendly theater to Sarah Lawrence. Sensory-friendly theater makes theater accessible to patrons with sensory sensitivities such as autism or PTSD.

Sarah Lawrence is a small liberal arts college where students flock from across the world to study theater. According to the college’s statistics, 90% of students engage with the theater program as participants or audience members. When it was announced that “Head Over Heels” would be the mainstage production, a musical fresh off Broadway with music from The Go Go’s, I was super excited. Musicals have a lot of theatrical elements and effects such as lights, sounds and smoke. This was a perfect show to make sensory-friendly. The Hillel student board and staff, as well as the director of the theater program and the musical were completely on board and passionate about this new initiative.

The work began. For this show, I didn’t want to make any changes to the actual performance. Changes to the performance are what most people think of when hearing “sensory-friendly.” Relaxed performances in England as well as organizations such as the Theatre Development Fund change elements of the production on certain nights for neurodiverse patrons. Lights in the house are kept slightly on, loud sounds are muted and there are no pyrotechnics. But, not everyone needs or wants an altered show. I wanted to demonstrate that accommodations for people with disabilities aren’t always large, drastic or expensive. Through keeping the artistic integrity of the musical, while still offering accommodations and supports to people who want them, the sensory-friendly production can be enjoyed by everyone together. It’s not a specialized show for “special needs.” As Roger Ideishi, a professional working in accessibility said in an interview with Temple University, “We don’t want to create a special event for special people. We’re trying to create an inclusive environment that anybody can come to and experience the same thing.”

Sensory trigger lists were given to audience members, noting any cues that might be unsettling or jarring, such as flashing lights or loud noises. When these cues were about to happen, a red warning light would alert patrons, giving them time to prepare such as cover their ears. In addition, there were “tips for neurotypicals,” explaining fidget toys such as stress balls or fidget spinners, stimming such as hand flapping or rocking. The simple act of giving a sensory trigger list and explaining differences to others, involves everyone in the process of making an inclusive and more understanding environment which includes people who are often excluded by society.

Accessibility changes on campuses or anywhere are often small, and start with attitudes. Rabbi Lynne Landsberg z”l reminds us, “It’s not enough to ramp buildings, we have to ramp attitudes.” The change on my college campus started with the student Hillel board. They were the first to hear about the project. Later, I introduced myself as a Ruderman Inclusion Ambassador at the welcome back campus Shabbat, making myself available to any Jewish student who wishes to talk about inclusion. The cast and crew of the musical were the next to hear about my Hillel project. The cast watched the process as I worked on the sensory-friendly show with the director, production team, and Hillel administrators. The entire campus was invited to my Hillel event, a panel with industry professionals discussing inclusion in the arts and accessibility. Through bringing sensory-friendly initiatives to Sarah Lawrence and hosting an inclusion panel, I generated a greater understanding on campus of the many ways to create inclusive spaces.

As members of diverse Jewish communities and diverse societies, we should always strive to do more with accessibility and inclusion. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in an interview for Reform Judaism Magazine, “The full inclusion of people with disabilities ensures the continuity and future of Jewish communal life.”

Ava X. Rigelhaupt is a member of the Class of 2020 at Sarah Lawrence College and a Ruderman Inclusion Ambassador at Hillels of Westchester. Photos were taken by Yuan Oliver Jin, a member of the Class of 2022 at Sarah Lawrence College.