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Why We Founded the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club

By Rachel C. Auslander, Sarika Chawla, and Ben T. Elwy, Contributing Opinion Writers

Disabled people exist at Harvard — but you probably wouldn’t know it at first glance.

There are no classes focused on disability taught by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the undergraduate level this academic year. The former Harvard College Disability Alliance faded out of existence once its leaders graduated. Very few dorms in Harvard Yard are fully accessible. Ableism is almost entirely absent from conversations about diversity and inclusion. Being disabled means facing prejudice and subconscious bias every day, being excluded from events, social gatherings, and opportunities, and feeling unwelcome in what is meant to be our home. As a result of the continued omission of our experiences, disabled students are surrounded by physical and systemic inaccessibility in every sphere of our lives at the College.

That’s why we founded the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club: to remind the Harvard community that we exist on campus. If the College wants to educate “future citizen leaders” as its mission statement proclaims, it must not only acknowledge that disabled people are an essential part of that population, but also demonstrate that we belong in this community through a commitment to accessibility in all aspects of University life.

Disability justice is a push towards accessibility and inclusion in all forms for disabled people of all identities. Disabled people make up the single largest minority group in the world. As of 2016, at least 19.4 percent of college students in the United States are disabled. It is also important to recognize that disability can happen without warning to anyone at any point in their life. This consideration is more urgent than ever given that a mass-disabling event is now occurring, with long Covid affecting up to 43 percent of Covid-19 survivors, according to some estimates. Disability justice is relevant to everyone, even if not everyone is aware that it is something we need to strive towards.

Prior to founding HUDJ, there was no opportunity for disabled students to connect and learn that we’re not alone in our experiences. It was difficult to find other disabled people on campus — we happened to meet each other through random interactions in classes, at events, or in the dining halls. There is no office or department that holds events where disabled students can get to know each other. The closest thing you could find at Harvard, prior to the pandemic, was the Accessible Education Office Test Center. Yes, the place where stressed-out disabled students silently took their exams was the closest thing to a “community center” we have ever had. Even the Office of BGLTQ Student Life has held more community-building events meant for disabled people than the AEO has. Rather than an affinity space, the AEO is a bureaucratic office that holds power over disabled students. Some of us have had only positive experiences with the AEO, but others have found it difficult to receive the accommodations and support that they need.

The AEO Test Center is a frustrating symbol of what we lack, but it’s also a promising reminder that more disabled people attend Harvard than one would think. The difficulty facing us is that there are many members of the Harvard community who would benefit from our advocacy but don’t currently realize it. After all, disability justice is not limited to visible markers of disability; it also includes neurodivergence, mental illnesses, and chronic illnesses — anything from depression to dyslexia. Disabled people are not a monolith, and not all disabled people choose to identify as disabled or even recognize that choice as an option. Some prefer to pass as abled to avoid stigma. Others arrive at Harvard knowing that they are disabled, and still others develop disabilities after arriving at Harvard and are left to their own devices to figure out how to advocate for themselves. There are disabled professors, staff, and graduate students as well — too often their presence at Harvard is overlooked.

We founded HUDJ to speak out against injustices as a community, rather than as individuals with complaints that are all too easy for Harvard administration to dismiss. With short-term goals such as advocating for Covid-19 policies that protect the safety of immunocompromised students, faculty, and staff, and long-term goals like establishing a Disability Studies department, HUDJ is striving to bring about critical change on Harvard’s campus that is long overdue.

Our aim is not only to create our own community, but also to work together to create long-term institutional policies that will better support students. We’re not asking for pity, and we’re not inspirational simply for taking up the space that we deserve. Instead, what we’re asking is that Harvard students, faculty, and administrators support us as allies in our fight for disability justice by making a conscious effort to ensure accessibility of classes, extracurriculars, and events; speaking out against inaccessibility and ableism on campus; and listening to and learning from us when we share our experiences and perspectives.

Harvard prides itself on being a national and global leader. It has the ability to set a powerful standard for the world that catalyzes change. It’s time for Harvard, both as an institution and as a community, to step up and take a prominent role in increasing accessibility and combating ableism on campus.

Rachel C. Auslander ’23 is a Folklore and Mythology concentrator in Leverett House and a co-founder of the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club. Sarika Chawla ’23 is a Computer Science concentrator in Lowell House and a co-founder and co-president of the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club. Ben T. Elwy ’23 is a joint concentrator in Linguistics and Classics in Quincy House and a co-founder of the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club.

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