Bobbi Wailes doesn't let adversity get in her way. Confined to a wheelchair since childhood, the Brooklynite became an athlete, winning a gold medal for archery in the 1964 Paralympics. After a successful career as a hospital administrator, she took early retirement and started acting, landing roles in a Robert DeNiro movie and in the soap opera Guiding Light. Wailes' current crusade is to make the world more hospitable to the disabled‹starting with Lincoln Center, where she is the director of the Department of Programs and Services for People with Disabilities. "As a child and young adult, I had to live in a world that was not accepting or accessible to people with disabilities," she says, adding, "I want people to have more advantages than I did."
Lincoln Center has been committed to accessibility since its inauguration, including wheelchair seating and handicapped-access restrooms in its original site plans. Nearly 50 years later, the 16-acre campus is undergoing a massive renovation‹and Wailes has helped ensure that accessibility is part of the plan. With the help of consultants who are also working on the new Mets and Yankees baseball stadiums, the architects are increasing the amount of wheelchair-compatible seating to rates above what is legally mandated, as well as improving overall access. The reconstruction is scheduled to be finished in time for Lincoln Center's 50th anniversary in 2009.
Increased facilities are important, but they aren't Wailes's only focus. Her department's 100 volunteers assist patrons and hand out braille and large-print programs (more than 180,000 of them in 2006-07). All the venues now provide some sort of assistive listening devices, and this past summer, some Lincoln Center Festival performances featured audio-description devices for the sight-impaired, a service Wailes hopes will be expanded soon. Her department also brings classes of disabled children and their teachers (more than 2,200 of them last season) to Lincoln Center for performances and to meet artists. And it sends performers into the community: last season, musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Chamber Music Society, and Juilliard gave concerts at 21 nursing homes and hospitals in the five boroughs and Westchester.
After Wailes was stricken with polio at the age of 12, she had to be educated at home because her neighborhood school wasn't wheelchair-accessible. So when she arrived at Lincoln Center, she was especially committed to expanding the Passport program, which provides free tickets to disabled children and their families. This fall, Passport holders will be able to attend the Big Apple Circus, learn about jazz from Wynton Marsalis, participate in New York Philharmonic for Young People concerts, or watch the Little Orchestra Society's production of Menotti's opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Passport's family program has increased from about 20 families before Wailes started at Lincoln Center 11 years ago, to about 90; last season, 1,167 disabled children, their parents and siblings took part. There are two Passport parties every season, and some of the families have become friends. "They call at the beginning of the season and ask to sit together," Wailes says.
While Passport allows families in similar situations to get to know each other, the program has another benefit that stems from the general public attending the same performances. "It's important for able-bodied children to see disabled children," Wailes says. "You want to integrate people‹it's what people aren't familiar with that can become an issue.
"Passport also includes a school program that brings classes of disabled students to Meet the Artist presentations. There were 2,248 participants last season, and Lincoln Center paid for all the students and their teachers to attend."
Having seen firsthand how much insensitivity there can be toward the disabled, Wailes strives to educate others. "The disabled are always with us, and we all need to live together," she points out. Part of her job is to provide sensitivity training for all new Lincoln Center employees, and her provocative seminar includes tips on offering assistance ("If you see someone with a disability who might be in need, ask if you can help. If the answer is yes, ask how. If the answer is no, don't be offended.") She also describes some of the thoughtlessness she has encountered. Once, she recounts, she was sitting, all dressed up for a night on the town, outside a restaurant, waiting for her husband to pay the bill so the two of them could hurry on to the theatre. Amazingly, people walked by and dropped money in her lap without even making eye contact. When her husband returned, Wailes told him she could help pay for dinner with the $18 and change she'd "made."
Bobbi laughs about the incident now, but dreams of a time when that couldn't happen. "If people are all sensitized, then I won't have anyone to train," Wailes says. "In the meantime, I just want to change the world."
For more information about Programs and Services for People with Disabilities, call (212) 875-5374, or visit LincolnCenter.org and click on Visitor Information.
Susan Jackson has just written a book on the arts in New York City Schools for the Center for Arts Education.