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Making Accommodations

For the future opera star, the job of hitting the right notes is daunting enough, but when Laurie Rubin enrolled in the opera program at the School of Music, the Los Angeles soprano faced an even tougher challenge. Rubin, who expects to graduate in 2003, couldn’t see the notes; she’s been blind since birth.

To be sure, there are sightless pop musicians, but a career in opera, which requires a rare combination of acting and singing talent, has remained out of reach for the visually impaired. However, according to critics who’ve watched her perform, Rubin may well score a first, and if she does, a special note of thanks will undoubtedly go to Judy York, the director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities.


“30 years ago, these young people would have been shunted away from academics.”

York is responsible for helping students break barriers of all kinds by coordinating the University’s efforts to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation that Congress began passing in 1973—laws that mandated equal opportunities for people with a variety of handicaps. “We’re seeing the first generation of students who have received treatment and accommodations throughout their entire lives,” says York. “Thirty years ago, these young people would have been shunted away from academics, but given a real chance, they’re now able to flourish.”

During the last academic year, 258 students (154 from the College; 104 from the graduate and professional schools) registered for assistance with York’s office. They encompassed handicaps such as blindness, deafness, medical problems that affect movement, learning disabilities, even temporary conditions such as broken legs.

To help, the office makes available equipment such as computers configured to magnify type or recognize human speech, and scanners that can read printed documents aloud. There are books on tape, and York employs a small army of note-takers, readers, typists, and interpreters. She’s a liaison between students and faculty for everything from accessible classrooms to exams that take a handicap into consideration, and she coordinates transportation and living arrangements at a University whose buildings often challenge anyone on crutches or in a wheelchair. “The campus has gotten considerably better through renovations,” says York.

No amount of rebuilding, however, could have helped opera student Laurie Rubin deal with a movement problem that was not anticipated in any federal law. Rubin could learn her vocal parts by ear. She has perfect pitch, and the Music School, in concert with York’s office, made available recordings, a piano player, French and German translators, and Braille renderings of lyrics.

But when a director asked her to “mince” her way across the stage, she was in a quandary. “I’ve never watched a body move, so I asked for a movement teacher to work with me one-on-one. I was awkward at first, but I grew a lot,” says Rubin. “I’m hoping that my experiences will eventually help change people’s opinions of what’s possible.”  the end


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