In recent weeks, Disability Alliance has successfully protested the Autism Speaks’ Light It Up Blue campaign on Sarah Lawrence campus. Traditionally, Westlands is lit up blue, to show SLC’s support of Autism Awareness Month. Disability Alliance’s heads, Bobby Marcus ’18, Emma Graydon ’17, and Rebecca Gross ’17 have challenged Autism Speaks’ seemingly goodwill activism, saying that the organization promotes an ableist view of autism as something to be “cured.” Disability Alliance has created a petition, where they express, “In spite of their name, Autism Speaks continually silences and dehumanizes the autistic people in our lives and communities under the guise of ‘awareness.’” The petition has circulated social media, with an upwards of 200 signatures from students, families, and faculty, asking for SLC to stop this Light it Up Blue event and for the administration to issue an apology.
Al Green, Dean of Equity and Inclusion, released a statement on April 1 announcing that the Light it Up Blue event, which was supposed to be held on April 2, is cancelled due to the student outcry. Green states, “The best means for raising awareness and advancing social action is one that is fully embraced and led by Sarah Lawrence students and/or faculty.” The letter then concludes with Disability Alliance’s sponsored events in honor of Autism Awarness Month; including the April 5 Fidget Workshop to make “fidget” and “stim” bracelets and the April 8 Noisy Hands Open Mic Night to celebrate non-abled and neurodivergent voices and writings.
This is not the first time that students have protested the Light it Up Blue campaign. Last year, Disability Alliance protested it by having a sit-in and handing out flyers on autism awareness and Autism Speaks’ ableist stances. Gross, who is currently studying abroad on the BADA program in London, elaborates on Autism Speaks, “They use fear mongering and pity rhetoric at the expense of autistic people in order to get donations which are then utterly misspent. Only about 4% of donations actually go to help people with autism. They claim to speak for a marginalized group of people who they then marginalize further.”
The campus has been overall receptive to the protests and the cancellation of Light it Up Blue. Marcus explains, “The students have been extremely supportive of the [protest] campaign. This was important to do in the first place because the school should not say that they are inclusive and have Autism Speaks, a charity that promotes ableism on campus.” The protest has put a spotlight on an organization, whose negative practices have generally flown under the radar. Some students say that they were unaware that Autism Speaks had any negative associations, considering the organization’s positive reputation. Emily Marinoff ’18 discusses how the student protest enlightened her on the issue, “I assumed Light it Up Blue would spread awareness for a good cause, but last year when Westlands announced it would do it, I was informed by students that Autism Speaks is actually a pretty discriminatory organization. I would still be pretty ignorant to it if they hadn’t intervened.”
There are also students who have come forward with their disabilities in support of the protest. Miranda Lee ’19, who is not a part of Disability Alliance, made a Facebook post discussing her Asperger’s syndrome. When asked why she made the post, Lee says, “I, as someone with Asperger syndrome, knew that Sarah Lawrence could do much better than support a company that has not only made autistic children out to be monsters, but has wasted money on finding a “cure” instead of providing autistic children with the resources and love they need to grow and develop.”
Beyond the Light it Up Blue protest, Disability Alliance continues to showcase Autism Awareness Month. In red lettering, “Autism Awareness Month” and the club’s programming scheduled for April, coats Bates’ free speech board. Graydon clarifies, “The free speech board is red for a reason. Members of the autistic community have been using #REDinstead and #lightitupRED on social media this April to protest Autism Speaks and its harmful rhetoric.” She continues, “We are very pleased that the administration agreed not to participate this year and will hopefully continue to support its autistic students in the future.”
This is not the end of the battle against Light it Up Blue on Sarah Lawrence’s campus. The issue will be revisited next year. As Green wrote in his statement, “Any future consideration regarding the participation of Sarah Lawrence College in this or any other campaign will require the direct support of students and/or faculty.” Green goes on to commend the members of Disability Alliance, “The Disability Alliance not only helped give voice to student concern, but has taken leadership in advancing autism awareness and education regarding the importance of neurodiversity.” Although there is a possibility for blue lights in SLC’s future, for now, diversity activists celebrate their hard-earned victory.
Andrea Cantor '17