This article was originally published by Jersey Shore Online and written by Bob Vosseller.
JACKSON, USA – Kaleigh Brendle, 19, has headed back to Villanova University and either wants to be a disability rights attorney or a musician and with her energy, she could probably do both.
The teenager hasn’t let her visual limitations stop her love of performing music but it did inspire her to fight for proper accommodations for those who are visually impaired.
Brendle, a resident of Brick, and a high school graduate from Howell Township, worked to secure appropriate accommodations for those like herself from the College Board.
She also performed at the White House with a choir and also created a choir at the age of 14 for visually impaired singers. Brendle recently performed some of her own music as well as several cover songs during a Saturday afternoon program that was sponsored by the Jackson Friends of the Library.
Prior to her library appearance she spoke to Jersey Shore Online.com about how she responded to an unfair issue and beat the odds. During her presentation she would integrate music with an appropriate song related to the chronology of her story.
“The songs supplement the story,” she said. The two stories she shared included one from 2020 which was an issue with the College Board regarding AP (advanced placement) exams. “They refused to provide blind and deaf test takers braille and other critical accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic and other test takers and I stood up against that and ultimately won that struggle and secured the braille that we needed.”
She said Jackson Librarian Christine Mecca asked her to talk about another advocacy project she undertook a year later as part of her senior thesis. “I went to a specialized program at a high school and so they required a capstone project where you can’t just write the presentation you actually have to start to institute change about whatever you are discussing.
“I want to be a disability rights attorney and what I ultimately chose was representation of disability in children’s media.” This included situation comedies, cartoons and some Disney programs.
“I was curious because growing up I’d never seen a disabled character on any of those outside of an episode. A blind character was on a Sesame Street episode, actually, a fraction of one. Is there something to that?” Brendle pondered.
Brendle made some sad discoveries. “The visual impairment representation that is awarded has a rate of one percent right now for children’s media for disability. It doesn’t give disabled kids someone to look up to when they are watching that. One in five Americans have some kind of disability now.”
“It is a pretty large group and to see it, they are either tokenizing or vilifying,” she added. She gave an example of tokenizing as the Sesame Street episode she referenced. “Where the character was only there for a fraction of an episode as if to check off a box.”
As for as vilifying, “a lot of villains in cartoons have some sort of defect or disability and that is a really bad angle to take and a consistency that is really troubling as it casts in a kid’s mind that being different are the bad ones and the ones to look out for,” she added.
Brendle released a video on social media that explained some of her research in a basic manner. “I started a campaign called ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ and it definitely got some attention. Unfortunately, I couldn’t advocate for it as much as I wanted to because I had to go to college right after that but any chance I get to talk about it and bring the issue to light, I definitely do that.”
She intends to contact Nickelodeon and Disney in the future “to see what is possible because that still is an existing issue.” She noted that Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon shows representation in having “autism or asperger’s and I believe there was a character on Modern Family who has something. There is more adult oriented programming that does have representation.”
She was joined by her mother Heather Brendle for the program who provided her some tips. Her mother said she was very proud of her daughter and her bright spirit even as she fought unsurmountable odds to make positive change.
The story selections she made to punctuate her saga included the songs “Rise Up,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Smile,” the theme song from the animated film “Pocahontas” and “At Last.”
She was diagnosed with a condition commonly known as LCA. “It feels like I am extremely near sided when I have my very strong prescription glasses on. I don’t have any peripheral vision. I don’t have any depth perception. I can’t read print for long periods of time without getting substantial headaches.
“I have had it since birth and my brother who is totally blind has the same condition,” she added.
Her musical interest began at an early age as well. “My first memory of singing was my dad holding me up and me singing Sesame Street songs to passersby on the porch. I watched people stop and listen to me. It was one of those things that was always there. I don’t know quite how it began.
“When I watched my cartoons in the morning, I was addicted to PBS Kids which I think also fostered my love of reading too,” she said.
She noted how difficult the conditions of the COVID-19 shut down were during her senior year in high school. “I was completely remote for it and had very little contact with my peers and was exclusively in my house for 17 months and that can be really isolating for somebody. Music is how I really coped with it.”
“I am very much split on my two career interests of being an attorney and singer,” she said. She recently released an album, performed at the Algonquin Art Theater and won the Diane Turton Talent Show in 2018 where she performed a song off her album in front of 500 people.
Her first of several White House appearances with the Princeton Westminster Children’s Choir was quite memorable. “I had the honor of being the featured soloist and performing there is incredible. It is one of those things where you can’t believe it is actually happening. It is magical and we went during the Christmas holidays.
“We were performing for not only the diplomats but for their families and there were a lot of little kids and it was so, so cute,” the performer said.
She formed the Sing for Serenity Choir “which is my pride and joy. It is an international online choir for the blind and visually impaired which I started five years ago. We have our own YouTube channel. We have members from over a dozen countries.”
“I’m creating a type of activism major at my college as there is an option to design your own major and what I am looking to create is using the legal system and using the media to advocate for positive change,” she added.
For further details about Brendle’s activism and musical journey visit her Choir for the Blind’s YouTube Channel.