During elementary school, Schuller, who has Tourette’s syndrome, would frequently make barking or other sounds she could not control. She would frequently be asked to leave the classroom.
Then came high school, where in math class in an artsy boarding school in Vermont, she again barked. The teacher, instead of expelling Schuller for making a noise, “worked it into the lesson,” she says — he used the noises as a metronome and students wrote a song about math.
That class, and summers at a Reform movement camp where she felt accepted despite Tourette’s, gave her a new direction.
She would work to make other children, who feel excluded for various reasons, feel included. And she would teach people in positions of authority about inclusion.
As until recently the Union for Reform Judaism’s inclusion specialist, she dealt mostly with the movement’s camps and youth groups, leading professional development seminars and consulting on “issues related to best practices in disability inclusion, LGBTQ inclusion and inclusion of teens grappling with mental health challenges.” In her new job at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, she will manage a teen and mental health initiative.
“I knew I wanted to work with teenagers,” she says.
Today, her Tourette’s is “relatively mild.”
Schuller, who lives on the Upper East Side, also serves as the URJ’s regional director of youth engagement for New Jersey and New York, running regional events, coordinating publicity and acting as mentor to a board of 36 teens.
In her spare time, she’s a stand-up comedian, often incorporating Tourette’s into her routine; in the past, she’s served as the opening act for stand-ups at college performances.
Schuller’s goal in all her disability-inclusion advocacy, she wrote in a recent Forward essay, is to move the general community beyond “tolerance.”
“I tolerate the weather in the winter. I tolerate going to the dentist,” she wrote. “But every person — whatever their unique gifts, whatever their limitations — has value, and no one wants just to be tolerated.”
Paralegal training, sort of: As an internship requirement for a college psychology course, Schuller trained teens, charged with misdemeanors, in court procedures; the youth acted as judge, jury and lawyers, then handed down sentences.
“Aunt Pam”: Every other day she speaks via video chat with her nephew, 4½, and niece, 18 months, who live in Chicago. The conversations last from a few minutes to an hour. “They’re my favorite people,” she says.