Disability rights advocates and policy experts discussed the importance of expanding accessibility and changing perceptions of disabilities in the United States during a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Wednesday evening.
The talk, titled “Disability: The Critical but Absent Part of Public Policy,” featured three Harvard Kennedy School graduates working across government and academia to promote disability rights. The panel was co-sponsored by the HKS Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and the HKS Alumni Board.
Michael A. Stein, co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, moderated the panel. Stein began by remembering internationally renowned disability rights advocate Judy Heumann.
“We are still mourning and thinking of our dear friend Judy Heumann, the most iconic — both domestic and international — disability rights advocate, who left us a little bit over three weeks ago,” Stein said. “It is in her memory and in her spirit that we consider today’s forum.”
Brooke Ellison ’00, a disability rights activist and associate professor at Stony Brook University, opened the discussion by reflecting on her experience with disability and how it was shaped by her time as a student at HKS.
Ellison, the first quadriplegic student to graduate from Harvard, said two harmful views of people with disability have long prevailed in society — a moral view that understands disability as a “price you had to pay for wrongdoing,” and a medical view that attributes disability solely to “medical failure.”
“I was very much indoctrinated into the socialized thinking that a disability was an aspect of my identity that I needed to be ashamed of,” Ellison said, adding that she was able to “deconstruct and then reconstruct” her identity while studying at the Kennedy School.
James R. Langevin, a former U.S. Representative for Rhode Island and the first quadriplegic member of Congress, said the Americans with Disabilities Act changed the perception of accessibility measures from a “common courtesy” to a civil right.
“After the passage of ADA, that paradigm shift showed that accessibility must be a civil right, that people with disabilities have the right to live active and independent lives,” Langevin said. “It wasn’t a perfect solution. It was a chance to start, and it’s an ongoing effort.”
Sara Minkara, special advisor on international disability rights for the U.S. Department of State, asked members of the audience to reflect on what they think when they see a person with a visible disability.
“Society does not yet expect us to be out and about living our lives fully,” Minkara said.
Minkara asked attendees studying public policy how often disability appeared in their studies. “Probably not as much as it should,” she said. “Why is that the case?”
“We are not seen, and if we are seen, we are not seen from a point of value,” Minkara added.
Stein closed the event by thanking the panelists and encouraging attendees to use the event as an opportunity for reflection.
“Let us try to reflect on this being an opportunity to move forward and increase disability inclusion, awareness, and equality across the University,” Stein said.