Typically victories are determined by what is happening, but for Sarah Lawrence’s Disability Alliance (DA), a victory came from something that did not happen this year—Light it Up Blue. The event, which was supposed to take place on campus April 3, involves lighting up buildings with blue lights in honor of Autism Acceptance Month, previously entitled, Autism Awareness Month. While other locations, such as the White House, participated in the event, Westlands remained its traditional brick color. This departure was a result of the efforts of DA and other activists, who disagree with the mission of Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization for autism, which spearheads the Light it Up Blue campaign.
“Autism Speaks was founded on the belief that being autistic was a tragedy and that autistic people should be ‘cured’ of their differences,” said Emma Graydon (’17), co-chair of DA. “Autism Speaks is a hate group that promotes fear and perpetuates dangerous, harmful stereotypes.”
Sarah Lawrence has partaken in the ceremony in the past. The school also has connections to Autism Speaks, since its founder, Suzanne Werner Wright, is a Sarah Lawrence alumna and was a Board of Trustees member from 1998-2006. In 2000, the Suzanne Werner Wright Theater in the Performing Arts Center was named after Wright in honor of her many contributions to the school. Wright passed away last year.
Two years ago during the Light it Up Blue ceremony, DA members staged a protest outside Westlands. Rebecca Gross (’17), co-chair of DA, said that the group worked with the administration, but when they realized the event would still occur, they decided to hold signs, pass out relevant literature, and have, to the best of their abilities, an “accessible protest” so that all members could participate. They tried to make their protest accessible by keeping it relatively small and quiet so as not to create sensory overstimulation.
Last year, as covered in the Phoenix’s “Light it Up Blue Lights Up Protest,” DA again had to fight the lights as they were informed that the school had accepted Autism Speak’s offer to participate in the campaign. DA members worked with administrators and created a Change.org petition. The petition read, “Against the will of autistic students, their allies, and the SLC Disability Alliance, on April 2nd, 2016 Sarah Lawrence College will light up Westlands with blue lights as part of the international Autism Speaks event, Light it Up Blue. This event is meant to promote Autism Speaks and their Autism Awareness Month. However, 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 reached its 250-signature goal and subsequently, the school called off the event.
“Our main goal isn’t to cause conflict, it is just to make sure everyone is comfortable,” said Gross in regards to the publicity of the protest. On the Change.org petition, not only did current students make comments, but also prospective students voiced their outrage of the school’s participation in Light it Up Blue.
This year DA has not had to do any demonstrations to stop Sarah Lawrence from lighting it up blue. Thomas Blum, vice president of administration, explained the reasons why the school decided not to participate this year as well as in the foreseeable future: “The college as an organization/institution stopped participating because: (1) of the expressed student objections to the certain actions taken by Autism Speaks over the years, and (2) the reality that it is better practice and policy for the College not to endorse specific causes that our outside of its specific mission. In fact, we discussed this change with senior management at Autism Speaks.”
“That said, if a recognized student organization or group of faculty wished to orchestrate a Light It Up Blue event on campus, the college would have no objection whatsoever,” Blum said. “As for what this means for the school in terms of disability awareness, my answer is that the absence of Light It Up Blue will have no impact on the priority the college places on disability services and accessibility.”
As for now, Westlands will refrain from the blue lights, a win that Gross believes is testament to DA’s resilience. “I think this is something Disability Alliance has cared a whole lot about. We try to represent the opinions of the people in our group on campus and of disability rights advocates on a larger scale. This means promoting self-advocacy, and making sure that conversations about disability are led by people with disabilities," said Gross. "We are the foremost experts on our experiences."
DA will be celebrating Autism Acceptance Month with an open mic night on neurodiversity and a fidget-making workshop. The dates and locations are still to be determined.
Andrea Cantor ('17)