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Harvard Kennedy School’s Bureaucracy is Failing Students with Disabilities

By Will Huang, Contributing Opinion Writer
Will Huang is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The email landed in my inbox at 11:36 p.m. A first-year Master in Public Policy student who is deaf wrote that the economics pre-class video didn’t have any captions that could be toggled on. Without captions, she couldn’t understand the key concept in the video, and she needed to know the concept prior to tomorrow’s class. I forwarded her email to the class’s faculty assistant to request that captions be added to this video and all future videos be captioned before they are published. But how did this happen?

I’m a course assistant for the required microeconomics class for first-year MPP students at Harvard Kennedy School. Instead of teaching about budget sets, elasticity, and indifference curves, I, alongside the teaching team, found myself pleading with the disability accommodations coordinator at HKS for an additional tutor to support students with disabilities.

This fall, I discovered that students with disabilities do not merely experience one-off inconveniences. They are being systematically underserved by HKS’s bureaucracy.

Inadequate accommodations for students with disabilities began immediately in our course. On day one, a student informed me that she requested the lecture slides be emailed to her in advance due to a vision disability that necessitated that she view the slides on her laptop. She had circulated her accessibility requests, which included slides to be emailed to her in advance, to faculty heads. However, none of her accessibility needs were met. I ripped a piece of paper from my notebook, handed it to her, and said: “Please write down your email address. I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Many able-bodied students are accustomed to frustrating experiences when navigating the HKS bureaucracy on issues ranging from financial aid to course registration. For students with disabilities, however, these inconveniences evolve into recurring headaches that impair their ability to thrive academically and socially.

HKS has a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, accommodations should be customized to meet the individual needs of the student with a disability. It’s understandable why HKS takes a bureaucratic and reactive approach to providing accommodations. Evaluating each disability and providing the proper support requires time and resources. Better to get the job done right albeit slowly, the thinking goes, than fast and wrong.

HKS could implement two ideas now, however, that would satisfy the ADA and improve the learning experience for students with disabilities: conduct a disability audit and adopt a proactive mindset.

A disability audit sets the foundation to comprehensively provide for students with disabilities. An MPP student who is low vision recommended a disability audit as a necessary first step in the process. She thought the buildings, the curriculum, and the extracurricular activities should all be included in a disability audit run by HKS in collaboration with disability experts, and that it should happen with great urgency. This student knew of vision-impaired students who had tripped going down the stairs between Wexner Hall and the Café. If disability experts helped to conduct an audit, she told me, they would have pointed out that those stairs needed to be outlined with tape. Once a disability audit is completed, the HKS administration also needs to publicly commit to implementing the recommendations.

Next, HKS must shift its administrative culture from being reactive to being proactive. One potential way to do this is by instilling a customer-service mindset among faculty and staff. Under a customer-service mindset, staff are not waiting for problems to arise before acting. Instead, they look at historical data and trends to anticipate the needs of the client and recommend services to the client at the outset. The service offerings would be modified and iterated based on periodic feedback from the client, and successful solutions would be scaled up and adopted.

To demonstrate what a customer-service mindset might look like in practice, the student who is deaf pointed out that once HKS is made aware that a deaf student will enroll for the upcoming academic year, they should start to prepare the necessary accommodations. They could use the accommodations that they set with her as a model, and then tailor them based on an individual deaf student’s need. That way, HKS can cover all the possible accommodation needs, and reduce the ones that are not needed — rather than doing it the opposite way. Take off what you don’t need and keep what you do, she told me.

The adoption of a hybrid-learning model this academic year in response to Covid-19 demonstrates that the HKS administration is more than capable of implementing technically complex solutions to address student accommodation needs. A school with a proactive culture and customer service mindset does not solely benefit students with disabilities. It benefits everyone. That, in itself, is a goal worth pursuing and dedicating resources to make a reality.

HKS can often appear to be a bureaucratic institution with legacy departments that were designed in a bygone era to comply with legal mandates. However, interested students can accelerate change by joining the HKS Disability Justice Caucus and connecting with like-minded students who can help make HKS a better place for students with disabilities. HKS can be an accommodating and inclusive environment for everyone. Let’s make it happen.

Will Huang is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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