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Harvard Holds Inaugural Affinity Celebration for Graduates with Disabilities

Rebecca A. Cokley, a civil rights activist, delivers the event keynote address at Harvard’s inaugural affinity celebration for graduates with disabilities on Monday.
Rebecca A. Cokley, a civil rights activist, delivers the event keynote address at Harvard’s inaugural affinity celebration for graduates with disabilities on Monday. By J. Sellers Hill
By J. Sellers Hill, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: May 24, 2023 at 5:02 p.m.

Harvard held its first affinity celebration for graduates with disabilities in a Monday ceremony that highlighted the accomplishments of students from across the University.

Hosted by Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, the ceremony took place at Harvard Business School’s Spangler Center. It joins seven other affinity celebrations occurring during this week’s Commencement exercises for the Class of 2023.

This year’s affinity celebrations include ceremonies for Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and first-generation, low-income students, as well as a celebration for Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans, which took place for the first time last year following student activism.

Priscilla A.A. Mensah, a graduating master’s student at Harvard Kennedy School, delivered an opening address where she thanked those who “decided exclusion was an obstacle but not the final word.”

“None of us got to this day alone,” she said in her address. “To celebrate ourselves at this inaugural disability graduation today is to celebrate the dedication, the activism, the loss, the gains of all who made this day possible.”

During the ceremony, Harvard Law School visiting professor Michael Ashley Stein was awarded the Excellence in Accessibility and Inclusion Faculty Award, which recognizes instructors who have made an extraordinary commitment to an inclusive campus and classroom environment.

Rebecca A. Cokley, program officer at U.S. Disability Rights, delivered the event’s keynote speech after Stein received the award. Cokley expressed dismay that Stein, who uses a wheelchair, was unable to speak from an accessible podium.

She delivered the remainder of her address from the stage floor.

“Podiums are structural inaccessibility, and if my friend Michael Stein can’t speak from a podium, I’m not gonna speak from the podium,” she said.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Stein did not comment on the podium, but expressed gratitude to those who organized the event.

“I commend the Student Accessibility Advisory Group and others who planned this inaugural event and are actively pushing for more inclusion and more visibility,” Stein wrote. “This was a glorious celebration and I am proud to be its first faculty speaker and recipient of the Excellence in Accessibility and Inclusion Faculty Award.”

Angela Alberti, a spokesperson for the Office for EDIB, wrote that the office aims to ensure “all students and members of our community are seen, heard, and feel valued.”

“In collaboration with University Disability Resources, the Student Accessibility Advisory Group, and other students, faculty, and staff members from across Harvard, we partnered to coordinate this celebration of graduates with disabilities,” she wrote.

“We are so grateful to everyone who worked to create a tradition of raising up the achievements of people with disabilities,” she added. “Disability is diversity.”

Cokley reflected on her upbringing as a child of parents with the same disability as her — achondroplastic dwarfism — and her path from working at Victoria’s Secret to driving change at the White House.

“There is no difference between lingerie and legislation,” said Cokley, who oversaw diversity and inclusion efforts for the Obama administration. “It’s all in the sales pitch.”

Rachel M. Seevers ’23 and Tziona R. Chernoff, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, also delivered remarks at the event.

Kelly B. Coons, a graduating student at the Graduate School of Education, said the event was an important statement for the University.

“I’m sure there’s more affinity graduations that we need, but this — especially in a climate where affinity graduations are coming under attack — it makes a statement for Harvard to not only say, ‘We’re continuing the ones we’re currently doing, and we’re also adding a new one,’” Coons said.

HGSE graduate Aidan S. Cadley praised the ceremony and speakers’ messages.

“I remember calling my parents when they announced this and just the pure joy we had,” Cadley said. “As a former teacher and student myself, this is an event that gives me a lot of hope for the future.”

“I think a lot of your life you’re told you want to be normal and break this mold of, ‘You’re different from society,’ and I think it was real comfort in saying ‘You’re good as you are,’” he added.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

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