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Students with disabilities pursue the arts at Florida Atlantic University

A group of students clutching instrument cases walks into Florida Atlantic University's Arts and Letters building. It’s a busy Wednesday afternoon and the building is packed with musicians, dancers and actors. A range of musical notes and monologues rings through the halls. The students walk past ballerinas stretching in the rehearsal studios where they will practice for the rest of the day.

Pursuing the arts can have its challenges.

“Putting in the long hours is hard work,” says Aschyut Dave, a theater major. “There’s also the constant battle of having to prove yourself. To be taken seriously as an artist.”

For students with disabilities pursuing the arts comes with added challenges. But that hasn’t stopped Karen Schoenhals, Kenneth Ruf and Marcus Banks, among other FAU students who continue to overcome significant odds.

“Students with disabilities audition to get into the program like any other student,” says Nicole Rokos, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities.

“We make all the necessary accommodations to ensure that they are given an equal opportunity,” she says.

The Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters and disabilities office work together to ensure equal educational access.

“We’ve had two students who were blind and who both played the keyboard,” Rokos says. “The audition required that the students be able to sight-read, so we provided them with the piece of music beforehand.”

“Some students have interests that they’ve developed through the years,” Rokos says. “These students have developed some of their own compensatory skills.”

Take, for instance, FAU student Marcus Banks, a 20-year-old drummer with cerebral palsy.

“He has a very stilted gait when he walks. He has a physical disability where the muscles are not being given their correct message from the brain. Still, he plays percussion in a local Brazilian band,” Rokos says.

Besides being in a band, Banks is a R&B/hip-hop artist signed to FAU’s student-run label, HOOT/Wisdom recordings. On the label’s Web site, Banks is described as an “MC that captures his audience in a world of amazement, wonder, and ‘realism.’ ”

FAU students Karen Schoenhals and Kenneth Ruf have found their way back to music.

“I came to FAU to be more dedicated to music,” says Schoenhals, who was recently diagnosed with high-functioning autism, a disorder that causes minimal social impairments.

“I worked with a computer company for a while and I’ve had my piano and guitar-teaching business so it helps to have a degree,” Schoenhals says. “But I also wanted to learn music history and perform with other musicians.”

Schoenhals grew up in Indiana. She took piano and guitar classes at an early age and considers her piano teacher her biggest musical influence. She encouraged self expression through the music.

“I had a hard time expressing myself verbally, so that helped a lot,” she says.

Schoenhals earned degrees in creative writing and math at Northwestern College before moving to Boca Raton to pursue a bachelor of music degree in guitar performance.

“I’ve always had a passion for playing the guitar, and I knew I’d go back to school for it,” she says. “When I play, I get lost in the music, and it’s the most beautiful feeling ever.”

Schoenhals credits FAU’s professors for her continual success in the program and hopes to see more people attend future university concerts.

“There are great things about the music school,” Schoenhals says. “The program is great and the professors are very talented. They are a significant influence for me. But I would like to see more advertising done for our shows,” she says.

“Some students come because they’re forced to for a grade, but I don’t want people to feel forced. We enjoy what we do and you can tell. It’s not an experience to miss.”

Kenneth Ruf, 48, can relate to Schoenhal’s passion for music.

“I grew up living jazz, living classical rock and classical music,” he says. “I learned to play the organ, piano, the vibes and marimbas at an early age. Music has always been an important part of my life.”

Ruf was diagnosed with acute anxiety disorder, one that causes both mental and physical symptoms known as anxiety attacks.

He grew up in Missouri and earned a degree in early childhood development. He then studied classical composition at a music conservatory before moving to South Florida to escape the cold weather.

During his years at FAU, Ruf has played the piano for the Jazz Band, sung in the choir under the direction of Patricia Fleitas and composed music alongside Stuart Glazer, FAU’s resident composer.

Ruf, who is 10 credits from receiving a major in music education and a minor in music composition, wants to use his degree to teach music in the public schools.

“I think it’s important to teach students to get their hands on as many styles of music as they can, so they can have more opportunities in the industry. I want to teach my students to use music to help people,” Ruf says.

“These students are like any other student,” Rokos says of students with disabilities pursuing the arts. “The only difference is that they overcome more than others. “Having a disability doesn‘t stifle their creativeness. Wherever they go, they will continue having the creative spirit.”




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