DISABILITY AWARENESS SERIES: Harvard, Disability, and Belonging

May 18, 2021

Michael Ashley Stein

I visited Harvard Law School (HLS) for the first time in the Spring of 1985, a few weeks after receiving an invitation to enroll. I was excited by the opportunity, and travelled to Cambridge to meet with the Dean of Students in order to discuss what my life, as a wheelchair user, would be like at HLS. Aside from an extended hospital and rehabilitation stay after disablement some seven years earlier, law school would be the first time that I would be living away from home.

“We’ll provide you with an unadapted room in the one dorm that has a ramp,” I recall the Dean telling me, “a wooden chair for the shower, and a shower curtain instead of a door around a toilet stall.” Her words remain with me to this day: “We won’t otherwise adapt anything or provide accommodations: there’s no access to cooking or laundry facilities in the dorm. Moreover, the tunnels underneath the school used by students during snow, rain, and other inclement weather are inaccessible for lack of an elevator; similarly, there’s no elevator to access the school cafeteria; and you’ll need to sit at the back of nearly every classroom. But we’re very happy to have you join us in the Fall.”

This meeting was five years before the Americans with Disabilities Act would compel changes, and a decade or so after the Rehabilitation Act already required them. But my mind was not focused on legal compliance so much as feeling supported and included. “That’s not very welcoming,” I mused out loud. “Well,” she replied, using the four letter word never employed at Harvard “if you don’t like it, you can go to Yale.”

In the end I attended HLS, and found it an amazing, if paradoxical experience. There were some wonderful faculty and classmates, many of whom remain friends to this day. There was also the vast majority of people who were uncaring, or at the very least unaware, of what it was like to be different, to be constantly inconvenienced and at times physically excluded, and to feel like I was not valued in the same way as my other classmates. I could share many examples, but here are two. Becoming the first member of the Harvard Law Review to have a visible disability, and in doing so, breaking a century-long barrier, but needing to crawl up the stairs in Gannett House due to lack of access. Supporting the sit-in precipitated by my beloved professor, Derrick Bell, to protest the lack of racial diversity among HLS faculty, but being told by him that disability was an entirely different issue as far as diversity and thus not an issue on which he was prepared to advocate. Perhaps one of the best insights I received about HLS, and the University generally, came from an administrator who efficiently ran the HLS facilities operations in the days before computers, employing a notebook, sharp pencil, and a sharper tongue. “Harvard always gets things right,” he told me. “You may not live to see it, but in the end Harvard always gets things right.”

And so it does. The University is a work in progress as far as including persons with disabilities as students, staff, faculty, and visitors. Great -- albeit incomplete -- advances have been made in creating an accessible environment, both physical and virtual (I sit on the University’s accessibility committee and am encouraged by some recent advances); and significant -- although decidedly uneven -- advances have been made across the University’s twelve schools in providing accommodations that enable effective participation. In my view, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Graduate School of Education stand out for enabling and including individuals with disabilities as members of our community, and disability as a subject matter equally worthy of attention.

I’m also decidedly proud of the role played by the Harvard Law School Project on Disability (HPOD) I co-founded with Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) Faculty Board Member William P. Alford. We have engaged people from across the University as well as from our geographic and virtual community since 2004. HPOD has convened events worldwide, provided pro bono advocacy in over 44 nations, including the United States, and won all sorts of awards. We have worked with ALI Fellows and I have had the joy of these Fellows attending my classes, including those in which self-advocates with intellectual disabilities have presented their life experiences to everyone’s mutual benefit. We remain the most prominent venue within the University for engaging disability rights, in both theory and practice.

Conversely, the University as a whole has yet to make students, staff, faculty, and visitors with disabilities entirely welcome to this fabulous academic institution. Two illustrative examples suffice. Disability was completely absent from Harvard College’s diversity report with the exception of the claim that the College complied with disability laws. Disability was likewise completely absent from a well-circulated and well-publicized “pulse” survey on inclusion that touted “your voice matters.” Hence, disability is increasingly incorporated in the University’s programming, but persons with disabilities have yet to feel that they are welcome.

At least three concrete and inter-related measures are readily achievable for precipitating meaningful change. First, creating and implementing a university-wide disability inclusion plan, along the lines promulgated by Australia’s national universities, to lay out strategies for championing disability as a valued identity characteristic. Second, including persons with disabilities on governance committees that impact the admission of students, and the hiring and retention of staff and faculty with disabilities. Third, authorizing a disability studies concentration, as a possible prelude to a minor, whereby the scholarship and lived experience of those with disabilities is acknowledged of a level with other identity characteristics such as race and gender.

As one of the world’s leading universities, Harvard has the opportunity as well as the responsibility, to lead in disability-inclusion.


About the Author:


Professor Michael Ashley Stein is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Dr. Stein participated in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on disability law and policy.


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