This summer, Accessibility at Lincoln Center partnered with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan to work with eight young adults on the autism spectrum as part of our Access Ambassador program. Though the Access Ambassador program—a job training initiative for teenagers and young adults with developmental disabilities—is only two years old, Lincoln Center has long used another Ambassador program for front-of-house support at performances. Composed of a large network of adult volunteers, Ambassadors greet guests, give directions, distribute brochures, answer questions, and create a welcoming environment at Lincoln Center events. With a little training, our Access Ambassadors do the exact same work.

Prior to this summer, the Access Ambassador program's partnerships had exclusively been with schools, so reaching participants through a community center was an exciting opportunity to move the program forward. The partnership with the JCC came about when social worker Alex LoPinto reached out to us in search of summer internship opportunities for participants in the JCC's Ha Dereckh pre-vocational program, designed for students with various developmental/learning disabilities ages 14 through 19 who hold a high level of independence. Given the physical proximity of the JCC to Lincoln Center and the close alignment of Ha Dereckh’s goals with the Access Ambassador program, the partnership was a natural fit. We met several times prior to the beginning of the semester to ensure the existing Access Ambassador curriculum met the needs of Alex's program participants, and made modifications based on students' learning styles, the goals of the Ha Dereckh program, and the shortened summer semester (our fall and spring semesters typically last 12 weeks, whereas this summer semester was only 6).

We held weekly classes at the JCC that covered topics such as Lincoln Center's summer programming, communication and guest services skills, and careers in the arts. During lessons, we did our best to engage students using a variety of teaching styles. Through question-and-answer style discussion, visual pictures, written text, oral descriptions, and role-play, we tried to let the students learn through whichever way they preferred.

Access Ambassadors greeted guests as they arrived to Damrosch Park for Midsummer Night Swing.

Each of our eight students was different. There are many personalities and learning styles in any classroom; however, in a classroom of neurodiverse students, these personalities and learning styles demand even more nuanced attention. The Access Ambassadors also had different strengths and goals. During a shift assessment, one Access Ambassador said, "I was friendly to guests and managed to use a level and friendly voice," whereas another Access Ambassador cited "having good posture and speaking louder" as goals. Although individual time with the Access Ambassadors was limited, much was gained through the group experience and the communication skills used on the job.

"Some of the greatest skills that I practiced during shifts and lessons were learning new skills, having more working experiences, making new friends, getting more experiences to put on my resume, gaining more confidence, being professional and looking professional, having good manners, having a great speaking voice, being respectful, helping people with disabilities, giving out brochures, greeting guests, and having an excellent posture," said one of this summer's Access Ambassadors, Natasha Greenbaum, in an interview after the end of the program. She also shared that she felt a big difference between her first and last shift: "My first shift went great, but I was talking in a low voice and I was nervous. My last shift went awesome, so I was talking in a louder voice. Also, I was more confident during my last shift."

The JCC Access Ambasadors each worked three two-hour shifts during Midsummer Night Swing, our outdoor social dance festival. They participated in front-of-house briefings each shift to learn about the featured dance styles and musicians, and to brainstorm answers to frequently asked questions. Accessibility staff coached the Access Ambassadors during their shifts, providing feedback on posture, volume, and appropriate answers to questions, for example: "Next time a guest passes by, try saying hello a little louder;" or "If a guest asks where to go to buy tickets but the event is sold out, you can tell them about the area in the back of the park where they can dance for free." In just three shifts, the students became experts in all things related to Midsummer Night Swing! During a June that alternated between scorching hot days and torrential downpours, our eight Access Ambassadors remained positive and determined to provide good experiences for guests.

Though the Access Ambassador program is a job training initiative for young people who often cannot find internship experiences elsewhere (a study by the Drexel Autism Institute shows that "young adults on the autism spectrum have the lowest rate of employment compared to their peers with other disability types"), the impacts are far greater than that; the Access Ambassador program also helps educate LCPA staff, volunteers, and the public about what it means to be neurodiverse. Shannon Behrens, Lincoln Center's Front of House and Guest Services coordinator, has worked with the Access Ambassadors for several seasons. "The greatest benefit of the Access Ambassador program," she said, "is showing the general public, LCPA staff, and the [Access] Ambassadors themselves that they are fully capable of working jobs similar to these and that their disability doesn't stop them from being able to contribute to their work environment." Through working with the Access Ambassadors, Shannon and other LCPA staff members learn how to communicate in a way that meets the needs of neurodiverse individuals.

Given the limited availability of staff for performance shifts during the busy summer season, Access Ambassadors offer the kind of additional service that contributes significantly to the Lincoln Center guest experience. Assistant Director of Guest Services Melanie Stark agrees. "For me, it's a wonderful reminder that what we do is very important for our community," she says. "It's also a great reminder to put ourselves in the shoes of our visitors… The Access Ambassadors have the opportunity to learn about customer service and operations from veterans in the field and our volunteers are developing an increased understanding of our staff and visitors with disabilities." In short, the Access Ambassadors are invaluable.

We plan to continue our partnership with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan next summer. In October, the Access Ambassador program will resume with seven school and community partners, serving over 35 high school students with developmental disabilities and continuing to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for guests at Lincoln Center events.

To learn more, find upcoming programs, or contribute to this program, contact Accessibility at Lincoln Center by email ([email protected]) or phone (212-875-5375).

Rebecca Klein is the 2018–19 Accessibility Partnerships & Programs Fellow and Alison Mahoney is Manager of Accessibility at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.