‘Fighting the Same Fight’: Disabled Students Unite for Justice

Thanks to decades of activism that reframed disability as an identity rather than an impediment, many students today embrace their disabilities. Now, they’re pushing the University and their peers to affirm their experiences and uplift their voices.
By Laurinne Eugenio
By John Lin and Dina R. Zeldin

Katie L. Sevier ’25 spent her first month at Harvard tracing the entirety of campus with her white cane, memorizing the locations of important buildings and dips in the paths crisscrossing Harvard Yard where puddles usually form.

She mapped the campus as a soundscape too, learning the distinct timbre of each building and walkway. Sevier had help from an orientation and mobility specialist and her parents in that first month, but she was preparing to be independent once the semester started.

Sevier, who is blind, says she appreciated the mobility training and the braille course materials from the Assistive Technology Center. But despite the resources provided by Harvard, there were matters that Sevier had to take on herself. The busy streets around campus, with the reckless drivers and teeming traffic, coupled with the noisy hubbub of the Square, posed a danger.

“Since the streets were so small, or they’re one-way, or the traffic was so intermittent, you really couldn’t hear specific traffic patterns,” Sevier, a former Crimson editor, says. “Some of my friends who are visually impaired, we’ll talk about anxieties with crossing the street when you can’t see the cars, you’re not quite sure when to go. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the cars.”

Things had to change. Before she left for summer break after her freshman year, Sevier made note of the 20 crosswalks lacking Accessible Pedestrian Signals — pole-mounted buttons at crosswalks that pedestrians can press to send an audible signal when it’s safe to cross. She took her list to the Cambridge Department of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation, and when she moved back to campus in the fall, she was pleasantly surprised to find APSs at most of the crosswalks on her list.

“It’s been super helpful,” she says. “I use them every day now.”

One of the crosswalks that now has an APS,  thanks to Sevier.
One of the crosswalks that now has an APS, thanks to Sevier. By Ariana-Dalia Vlad
Katie L. Sevier ’25 advocated for the placement of various APSs around Harvard's campus to the Cambridge Department of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation.
Katie L. Sevier ’25 advocated for the placement of various APSs around Harvard's campus to the Cambridge Department of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation. By Ariana-Dalia Vlad

Sevier, along with many other students, explains that accessibility was a critical factor in deciding where to attend college, and Harvard fit the bill.

Many disabled students come to the College for the same reasons as others: for the unique classes and renowned faculty, diverse and accomplished classmates, and prestige that gives them a leg up in their careers. But for them, the stakes are higher.

They hope that graduating with a Harvard degree will mean that hiring offices and colleagues will be more likely to take them seriously. Unemployment rates for disabled people are twice as high as that of the general population partially due to discriminatory hiring practices.

Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an email that the school is “committed to developing and supporting a diverse learning community where students are celebrated for who they are” and what they contribute to campus.

“We strive to ensure students are accessing the full array of residential and academic resources they need to be successful and that they are supported throughout every aspect of the student experience from the day they commit to attending Harvard until the day they receive their well-earned diploma,” Palumbo wrote.

Harvard plays a critical role in the futures of its disabled students, but there remain obstacles to success on campus, both in and out of the classroom.

Ever since disabled students have been at Harvard, they have had to advocate for themselves. In the ’70s, when disability advocacy on campus first surged in parallel with a national movement for disability rights, there were only a few dozen disabled students on campus. Today, about one in five undergraduates are registered with the Disability Access Office, which is responsible for processing accommodations for students. The number is in line with national averages, though not all of these students identify as disabled.

Since 1973, providing accommodations for disabled students has been a legal requirement for colleges, and Harvard has instituted systems to make the College accessible. Students say there are enough resources to get by — but not enough to thrive. They’re asking for something more: inclusion, not just access.

Over the last five decades, campus accessibility has improved, but accidents happen: Elevators break, dorm rooms are misassigned, renovations get delayed, and clubs forget to book accessible buildings for their events. What seems like one-off oversights or temporary inconveniences add up to an environment where disabled students are constantly fighting to maintain the access they have.

In the face of exclusion, disabled students have found camaraderie through the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club, banding together to call for better support systems. They imagine a campus where the conversation around disability doesn’t start and end with basic accommodations.

Thanks to decades of activism that reframed disability as an identity rather than an impediment, many students today embrace their disabilities. Now, they’re pushing the University and their peers to affirm their experiences and uplift their voices.

Harvard markets itself as a place where students of all backgrounds and identities can coexist and thrive. But disabled students are left wondering: How will the College respond to their calls for justice?

‘A Lot of Platitudes’

During move-in day her sophomore year, Melissa Shang ’25 was stuck. Months earlier, Shang, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a motorized wheelchair, toured Leverett House to preview her housing options. The DAO showed her two rooms that would fit her needs: a personal care assistant suite connected to her own suite, a clicker system to open her door independently, and an accessible in-suite bathroom.

Days before she arrived on campus, however, her DAO adviser told her that things had changed. Shang would receive a different room that did not yet have a clicker system. Her adviser assured her there would be tutors available to open the door.

When Shang arrived with her luggage, she realized there had been a miscommunication. Her PCA’s suite, instead of being connected to her room, was next door, and the bathroom wasn’t accessible. The Faculty Dean and Building Manager told her that the tutors were too busy helping other students to open her door.

Determined to move to a suite that fit her needs, Shang called her DAO adviser, who said that they were not working and would deal with her situation the next day. They told her not to call again and hung up.

Eventually, administrators, including her DAO officer, Faculty Dean, and Building Manager, told her they would resolve the situation within a week. For two days, Shang was left in her room, unable to unpack, unable to shower, and unable to leave her room for meals or gatherings without her PCA. Shang felt that none of the administrators acknowledged the gravity of her situation.

After many more emails urging them to fix the problem sooner, Shang finally moved into the suite that she had been promised.

“The DAO’s actions don’t reflect a genuine care for students with disabilities,” she says. “What happened to me should never happen to any student.”

Shang had already tried to set aside her discontent of being placed into Leverett House on Housing Day. Although McKinlock Hall, where she would be living, was recently renovated, a majority of Leverett students live in the 12-story Towers, where elevators only stop on every other floor, and the House library has no elevator at all. For Shang, this meant she would be left out of critical aspects of House life. Coming to campus to find her own room inaccessible was like rubbing salt in the wound.

College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment on incidents regarding specific students.

Shang, who is a co-founder and current co-president of HUDJ, doesn’t dwell too long on her personal disappointments. Rather, she positions her story as a symptom of a broader issue of campus inaccessibility.

“This is an issue that shouldn’t have happened,” she says. “Between the shortage of academic accommodations and the lack of housing accommodations, this was because the DAO was understaffed.”

Melissa Shang ’25 is a co-founder and co-president of HUDJ.
Melissa Shang ’25 is a co-founder and co-president of HUDJ. By Sachi Laumas

This past summer, the DAO expanded their staff from five to eight advisers, who handle the accommodations for more than 1,000 students.

Housing remains a key issue for disabled students. Only two of the 17 first-year dorms (Weld and Thayer) and six of the 12 upperclassman Houses are wheelchair accessible, according to Shang.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is currently undergoing a yearslong process of renovating its houses in an effort to make them more accessible, according to Palumbo.

Beyond the Undergraduate House Renewal, though, the University has not shared a specific timeline for when all buildings will be renovated and made accessible. Until then, disabled students will continue to face the physical barriers that impact their daily lives.

A few weeks into the fall 2021 semester, a group of disabled students, including Shang, created a group chat where they shared their experiences with accessibility issues, asked questions about how to navigate campus, and exchanged tips. The texts morphed into brainstorming sessions, which, in turn, became HUDJ.

“Each of us was kind of doing our own advocacy for our own needs. We figured that if we had some strength in numbers, if we had a group, it would be more powerful, and you might be able to get more changed,” says Sarika Chawla ’23, who became HUDJ co-president along with Shang.

HUDJ’s advocacy has not gone unnoticed. The Harvard Gazette, the official news website for the University, and Harvard Magazine, an independent alumni-run publication, profiled Shang and HUDJ. In spite of the attention the club has received from Harvard press, however, HUDJ leaders say that dealing with upper echelons of Harvard administration reveals a different story: Their advocacy is often met with apathy and inaction.

On March 7, 2022, several months after the club’s creation, members of HUDJ met with College administrators on Zoom.

They voiced concerns about the limited number of accessible suites, fire safety protocol that require those who use wheelchairs to shelter in place instead of exiting buildings, the scarcity of van shuttles in the evenings, and a dearth of classes that discuss disability through an academic lens.

But according to Shang, the students left the meeting without concrete results. “They offered us a lot of platitudes while not actually taking action,” Shang says.

HUDJ leaders were particularly disappointed that administrators were not receptive to their ideas for more supportive resources dedicated to disabled students. They proposed adding dedicated disability tutors to House staff and creating space for a Disability Center at the College, comparable to the Office of BGLTQ Student Life and the Women’s Center.

“I think the beauty of a disability center would be that there are formal resources that are dedicated to a space for disabled students,” says Lily Richman ’24, current co-president of HUDJ. Without institutional support and resources, “we as students can do our best, but we can only do so much.”

Shang worries that disabled students will continue to go through Harvard without feeling truly incorporated into campus life or being able to access many of its spaces. When each student has only four years on campus, incremental change is frustrating.

“The number of disabled students who are open about their disabilities seems small, first of all, and many of us just don’t have the capability to advocate for accessibility. Because of those two things, they think they can get away with not meeting our demands, but changing slowly over a period of years and years,” she says.

Shortly after the HUDJ coverage was published in the Gazette and Magazine, Harvard began promoting Shang as part of their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She was featured on the Harvard University website for Women’s History Month and on Harvard’s X account. Shang, however, finds these self-congratulatory posts troubling.

“I very much was uncomfortable by the fact that I thought I was being used for diversity points while the admin wasn’t doing anything to directly address students’ concerns,” she says.

Nonetheless, Shang values the visibility that her story brings to disabled experiences. She hopes it soon translates to real measures to help disabled students, from establishing a Disability Center where students can find support to improved infrastructure in all of Harvard’s buildings.

Labs, Libraries, and Lost Confidence

Last year, students filing into the lecture hall for Physical Sciences 2 and 3 might have noticed a large monitor and two reserved office chairs behind the rows of blue seats. For the entire year, that was where Bianca C. McEvoy ’25 sat. During class, the professor would annotate lecture notes on a tablet while a projector displayed him writing on the board. McEvoy, who is visually impaired and can only read text in large, high-contrast print, watched the annotations on her monitor.

McEvoy says that receiving these accommodations was a drawn-out ordeal. At the start of each semester, McEvoy emails her accommodations to every professor and works with each teaching team to implement them.

The first roadblock she faced in PS2 involved something that seemed relatively simple: asking for her monitor to display the iPad screen rather than the projection of the professor writing on it, since the higher resolution helped her see better. Her professor was opposed, citing studies that show that when students can see hands, it improves the learning experience.

“And I was like ‘What? I can’t see your hands,’ for one. But also that sounds ridiculous,” she says. Such a change wouldn’t affect the rest of the class, but would make a big difference to her, she thought.

The teaching staff of PS2 did not respond to a request for comment.

Bianca C. McEvoy ’25 believes that accommodations should not seek to replicate the experience of an able-bodied student but rather be tailored toward the individual student’s needs.
Bianca C. McEvoy ’25 believes that accommodations should not seek to replicate the experience of an able-bodied student but rather be tailored toward the individual student’s needs. By Courtesy of Bianca McEvoy

Receiving the monitor to begin with was not an easy task. “There was a whole chain of people I had to go through just for this thing to happen,” she says. First, she contacted her DAO adviser, who referred her case to the DAO office, then to the Assistive Technology Center, which finally reached out to her professors.

The other half of the battle was guarding her seat from her classmates. She would frequently find other students sitting in it at the start of class, and it became an “awkward and uncomfortable” experience telling them to move.

Despite the extensive signage posted on the tables, she still had to tell people to get out of her seat, even on the last day of class.

There was also a constant struggle between her accommodations as a blind student and her teacher’s pedagogy. The nature of physics experiments, which were required, did not suit her learning style.

“You drop a ball, and it goes down. Yeah, gravity works. All the confirmation is visual observation. I was sitting there, and they were like, ‘Do you see it?’ and I was like ‘Nope, but I trust that it’s happening. Newton discovered it 400 years ago, and it’s not changed since,’” she says. “For me, it was not something that was beneficial to my learning.”

McEvoy believes that accommodations should not seek to replicate the experience of an able-bodied student, but rather be tailored toward the individual student’s needs. Instead of requiring her to sit in the lab for more than two hours while someone else performed the procedure, she says it would have been more useful to allow her to model these experiments digitally.

Beyond pedagogical differences, accessing basic course support can become a tug-of-war between students, professors, and the DAO.

Maureen Clare ’24, says she has switched out of more than 10 courses during her time at Harvard because she sensed that professors were inflexible and unaccommodating. Because of her chronic illness, Clare experiences flare-ups which keep her from being able to attend class in person. On days her symptoms worsen, she asks professors to Zoom in instead — an accommodation that the DAO does not allow. Clare argues this is the only way for her to participate fully, but only some professors have been willing to bend the rule.

“I have been too often at the mercy of whoever the professor is because of standards that are not explained to me and that I think are arbitrary,” she says.

According to Palumbo, the DAO recently updated its website in order to clarify policies about accommodations and house resources for students and faculty. He adds that the DAO has also made changes to its operations to make delivering resources more efficient.

Course-assistant-led office hours for STEM classes are frequently held in inaccessible dining halls, students say, limiting opportunities for disabled students to get help with problem sets and check their understanding. When disabled students ask for office hours to be moved to accessible locations or be held virtually, students say their requests are sometimes denied by course staff, who tell them to attend other hours.

Across the river at the Science and Engineering Complex, where many STEM professors have moved their offices and classes, students face a similar set of problems. While shuttles to Allston are equipped to be accessible, students say that the wheelchair lifts are frequently broken and drivers do not know how to operate them properly.

Even in instances where students can access academic accommodations, the DAO asks disabled students to email their accommodations to professors. Some say this puts them in situations where they don’t always feel comfortable communicating their needs. They add that the process can be overwhelming and stressful, which could lead students to question whether they belong on campus.

When she was a student, Valerie J. Piro ’14 led a very active academic life. Shuttling between her dorm room in Currier House and the libraries, she amassed dozens of books on her library tab while writing her senior thesis.

Valerie J. Piro ’14 on Housing Day, 2013.
Valerie J. Piro ’14 on Housing Day, 2013. By Courtesy of Valerie Piro

Due to a spinal cord injury, the muscles in her hand — particularly those in between her thumb and index finger — had atrophied. Piro would often get cramps during three-hour written exams, but she was hesitant about asking for extra time.

“There’s this insidious thought that asking for an accommodation is like asking for help,” she says. “And that’s not at all what they are. It’s not asking for help. It’s asking to level the playing field.”

Piro attributes her hesitation to “internalized ableism,” referring to the internalization of disability-based societal prejudice.

Piro also felt pressure to show she could be just as successful as, if not more successful than, her able-bodied peers. She recalls that she barely slept during her college years and worked so hard on her senior thesis that she submitted it two days early.

“I think, ‘Oh, everyone thinks that I’m only here because of the wheelchair.’ Well, you know what? I’m just going into beast mode the whole time while I’m here,” she says. “I basically went a little overboard to overcompensate.”

During her Commencement address, Brooke M. Ellison ’00, one of the first quadriplegic people to graduate from Harvard, admitted that she, too, felt out of place: “There were times when I thought for sure that the statue of John Harvard was looking right at us and saying, ‘What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?’”

Wheeling Over Cobblestones, Fighting ’til Commencement

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first organized efforts for equal opportunity for disabled people at Harvard began.

In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace on the basis of disability. Section 504 of the legislation made waves to change the course of disabled students’ education. It extended civil rights to people with disabilities and required that entities receiving federal funding, such as universities, make their programs accessible to disabled people.

While colleges like Harvard previously took a case-by-case approach toward accommodating students, Section 504 required them to create systemic changes, like adding ramps to all buildings.

Administrators met the mandate met with skepticism and irritation. The regulations were an “overkill,” forcing Harvard to go “above and beyond what will be required to accommodate handicapped students,” Joe B. Wyatt, then vice-president for administration, told the Crimson in 1977.

During this time, Marc I. Fiedler ’78 became a leading voice for change. Fiedler spearheaded efforts to collaborate with the administration, helping draft and implement accessibility measures.

A week before his junior year was supposed to start, Fiedler survived a car accident and became paraplegic. He came back to school a year later, rolling through campus on a motorized wheelchair. To accommodate him, a ramp had been constructed across the courtyard of Quincy House that snaked up to the foyer of New Quincy, and a room was renovated to make the bedroom and bathroom accessible for his wheelchair.

“At that time, there were very, very few people with serious disabilities living on campus,” Fiedler says. Yet, he did his best to integrate and embrace the raucous party scene that characterized Quincy; it was “a lot of rock and roll,” Fiedler remembers. But navigating Harvard Square in a wheelchair was a challenge.

Marc I. Fiedler ’78 (first row, far right) with his classmates at Quincy House. He paved the way for many disabled students after him. Fiedler and the group he founded, ABLE, worked with University administration to get the basic needs of disabled students met in the late '70s, during a national surge in disability advoacy.
Marc I. Fiedler ’78 (first row, far right) with his classmates at Quincy House. He paved the way for many disabled students after him. Fiedler and the group he founded, ABLE, worked with University administration to get the basic needs of disabled students met in the late '70s, during a national surge in disability advoacy. By Courtesy of Mark Horwitch

“Cambridge back then was a nightmare,” he says. There were no curb cuts — the dips that connect sidewalks with crosswalks — “nevermind the cobblestones. Try to ride a bicycle or sit in a wheelchair, and try to push a wheelchair over cobblestones. If you have any teeth left afterwards, let me know. It’s rattling so.”

Fiedler speaks with wistfulness about his college days, even while he recalls the moments his wheelchair struggled through the centuries-old campus. Once, he was crossing Massachusetts Ave. to get to the Holyoke Student Center — now called the Smith Campus Center. “There was no curb ramp, and I tried to pop a wheelie in my wheelchair, and I ended up falling out of my chair onto Mass. Ave.,” he says. “Things like that would happen. And what can we do? It’s life.”

And in 1978, when a historic blizzard hit Boston, Harvard had canceled classes for the first time since the 1930s, but Fiedler still had to sit for an exam. He remembers finding himself stuck in an academic building late at night. Outside, he faced over 20 inches of snow.

“I called my roommate. He got a bunch of football players from Quincy House. They came over, they lifted me up, like Egyptians carrying the queen, one in each corner and walked down Mount Auburn Street back to Quincy,” he says. The next day, he watched his classmates “ski-jumping off of the roofs.”

Fiedler approached daily challenges with the same level-headedness and creativity. While in rehab, Fiedler, who has limited manual dexterity, had been given an IBM Selectric typewriter — “the fanciest electric typewriter” of its time, Fiedler insists — which he learned to use by pressing the keys down with the eraser end of a No. 2 pencil.

“Imagine how long that took,” he says. “I remember the times I just couldn’t do it. And a friend of my sister’s who lived in Brookline was a competitive typist. And he came over and in a half an hour, you could type a 20-page paper.”

Though there were ways to adapt, Fiedler recognized that Harvard’s campus was generally inaccessible to him and to others. “There were very few of us, so we figured out we got to band together to get the University to do the things that we need so we could get an education.”

Fiedler and his disabled friends “saw ourselves as sort of brothers and sisters in arms,” he says. “Even though our disabilities weren’t the same, we are all fighting the same fight for one another. And it was a wonderful thing.” They called their club Advocating for a Better Learning Environment — “‘ABLE,’ clever, right?” he chuckles.

One of the key administrators who Fiedler worked with was Eleanor G. Shore ’51, who served as the assistant of health affairs to then-Harvard President Derek C. Bok. Charged with managing the accommodations for individual students, she was, according to Fiedler, “the real difference-maker.”

At the time, Harvard had an ad hoc approach to providing accommodations for students.

“These students I worked with were one-of-a-kind, and so it wasn’t that you could make a University-wide solution,” Shore says.

Shore remembers how a blind graduate student at the Medical School transferred to Yale because there was no way for him to safely cross the busy avenue that separates the academic buildings from graduate student housing.

“He was much happier there. I was not pleased that we couldn’t do better,” Shore says.

Although the administration had been able to create a dorm room to suit his needs, Fiedler was concerned with creating systems for future students. He figured that the best path to persuade the College to implement accessibility measures was to work alongside administrators like Shore.

Fiedler helped draw maps of accessible streets and walkways on campus for the University as it planned future construction. He also sat in on meetings with administrators as they created Harvard’s first University-wide accessibility protocols.

Fiedler says that administrators had no context for what problems existed and which measures could help. “All these representatives — we’re talking three-piece suit guys from the Business School — they didn’t have any students with disabilities to their knowledge. They were not disabled. They didn’t know what they had to do,” Fiedler recalls. “They were looking to us for guidance.”

The solutions offered by Fiedler and his peers were key to overcoming administrative inertia. “We were totally mutually dependent to make progress,” Shore says.

Administrators focused on improving programmatic accessibility so each student’s course load was as accessible to them as possible. For example, Shore worked to translate lectures and class materials to braille and created a system for volunteers to read aloud to blind students.

“You know what the course catalog looks like — it’s like ‘War and Peace,’” Fiedler jokes. “They can’t make every single one of those wheelchair-accessible back then. I doubt they could even do it now. What they decided to do was, well I guess you’d say, ‘bring the mountain to Mohammad.’ They said, ‘You tell us what courses you want to take, and we’ll make sure that they’re relocated.’”

Fiedler hoped the work of ABLE would outlast the club, ensuring future students wouldn’t have to go through the trouble that he did to get what they need to succeed.

“What they did for me at Quincy, I’m sure many other students have used since,” Fiedler says. “They don’t know the backstory, they don’t need to. It’s there for them to use, and it’ll make their experience at Harvard that much easier.”

After Fiedler graduated, a national tide of disability advocacy led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. A landmark legislative victory for disability activists, the ADA expanded the reach of Section 504, requiring all government entities and private businesses, ranging from movie theaters to public libraries, to have accessibility measures in place for people with disabilities.

On the heels of this sweeping legislation, Brooke Ellison moved onto campus and became one of the first quadriplegic student to attend Harvard. The University offered a unique opportunity and despite her own hesitation, Ellison’s parents egged her on.

“They didn’t want to deny me any more opportunity than I was already being denied by a world that was not set up for people with disabilities,” she remembers.

Ellison’s mother, Jean, served as her caretaker. That fall, mother and daughter moved into a renovated dorm room in Thayer Hall, and after spending a few days acclimating to Harvard Yard, they were invited for a home-cooked Italian meal with her proctor.

Straight away, Ellison connected with administrators who embraced her and worked to implement accommodations for her dorm and classes. “I didn’t want to have a lesser experience than everybody else, and I think that Harvard had that same commitment,” Ellison says.

Brooke M. Ellison ’00 was the first quadriplegic person to attend Harvard. During her commencement speech, she reflected on her time at the College, saying: “There were times when I thought for sure that the statue of John Harvard was looking right at us and saying, ‘What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?’”
Brooke M. Ellison ’00 was the first quadriplegic person to attend Harvard. During her commencement speech, she reflected on her time at the College, saying: “There were times when I thought for sure that the statue of John Harvard was looking right at us and saying, ‘What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?’” By Courtesy of Brooke Ellison

Her classes were moved into accessible classrooms at the start of each semester, and Jean followed her to lectures and sections. Ellison had access to a van service that could take her between classes and her dorm, and over the four years, she bonded with the drivers, exchanging recipes and listening to stories about their children.

“To have that sense of welcoming was really life-changing for me,” she says.

Still, much of the campus was inaccessible. “There were a lot of buildings I couldn’t get into, which I think was regrettable, and because of that, there was a part of the Harvard experience that I was not able to tap into as much as others,” Ellison reflects.

Today, Ellison thinks differently about her accommodations. “Harvard did a lot in order for my attendance to be possible, I want to be perfectly clear. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe they’re doing all of this,’ rather than thinking that this is something that I deserved,” Ellison says.

Because of the ADA, disabled students today have gained more access to accommodations, and Ellison suspects that students view their right to accommodations differently than she did. “There’s a shift in thinking that people deserve more than just smaller accommodation gestures but opportunities to live with justice and with dignity,” she says.

Though Harvard’s structural accessibility has developed even more since Fiedler’s and Ellison’s college years, students are still fighting for improved access across physical and social spaces. HUDJ’s work comes at a time when students have a broader vision of what accessibility looks like than those who came before.

Uniting against Ignorance

At the start of her freshman year, Sarika Chawla arrived at Memorial Hall for her a cappella audition. She soon realized that the room where she was supposed to perform her song was located on the third floor, a landing that sat at the top of a rickety staircase. The a cappella members scrambled to find another room for her to perform.

On the surface, these instances should be rare: the majority of the 463 rooms on Roombook, the online platform that clubs use to book spaces for meetings and events, are labeled as accessible. However, a significant chunk of “accessible” rooms are in buildings that are not easy to enter. According to HUDJ, academic buildings such as Sever Hall — where club meetings are frequently held — close their accessible entrances after 5 p.m. on weekdays as well as on weekends and holidays while keeping their inaccessible entrances open.

Oversights like these are common in extracurriculars, and the responsibility often falls on disabled students to speak up, students say — and when they do, leaders are not always receptive.

Despite the rocky audition process, Chawla joined an a cappella group: the Fallen Angels. In gold and black sparkling outfits, the group sang all over campus, and Chawla performed several solos at Sanders Theatre.

The club posted videos of their performances on Instagram, and Chawla proposed that the club caption their posts with descriptions for blind people, including her friends in HUDJ. Though the other members complied, they decided to stop adding captions to every post once Chawla graduated.

“I was told by someone in the group who was also on leadership that it was something only I cared about and after I graduate, I shouldn’t be surprised if it stops,” Chawla says.

Sarika Chawla ’23 was a co-president and founding member HUDJ while she was attending the College.
Sarika Chawla ’23 was a co-president and founding member HUDJ while she was attending the College. By Courtesy of Sarika Chawla

“That was disheartening to hear,” she adds. “It may not mean much to them if accessibility is left out, but it means a lot to people who need that accessibility.”

The Fallen Angels leadership did not respond to a request for comment.

Along with the various extracurricular inaccessibilities, disabled students often can’t partake in traditions at the College. For example, students who use wheelchairs weekly Choosenings in Kirkland House since the House lacks ramps at building entrances. Previously, they likewise could not attend the highly anticipated Fête at Eliot House, though in recent years, organizers have provided ramps for the celebration.

Kirkland and Eliot House Committee Chairs did not respond to a request for comment.

During Senior Week, Chanel E. Washington ’15, who uses a wheelchair, arrived at the Senior Soirée, which was held on a yacht. Washington quickly found that the entrance had a step with no ramp. She had to wait on the dock while everyone else boarded. Finally, after half an hour, she got on the boat.

“I was buzzing with anger. I was so frustrated,” she says. “It puts an attention on you that isn’t about who you are as a person, but is fully just focused on the barriers in your way.”

According to Washington, the many parties and good-bye mixers organized by the Senior Class Committee that year were hosted at bars and other venues that weren’t accessible.

In a written statement, Sietse K. Goffard ’15, the First Marshal of the Senior Class Committee, and Chika-Dike O. Nwokike ’15, Class Marshal and senior bar director, both expressed regret that the yacht and other events were not accessible. “We have certainly learned our lesson from these errors and will do much more due diligence around disability access as we plan future events, such as our reunions,” Goffard wrote.

Along with the exclusion from organized events, disabled students also point to a general lack of consideration from peers, adding up to a broader culture of ignorance.

On her way to a party one night, Chawla and her friend — both of whom use wheelchairs — waited for the elevator in Lowell House outside of Chawla’s dorm. Five minutes passed. Then 10. It never came. They had no choice but to wheel down the hallways to the other corner of the house where there was another elevator — it took an extra 15 minutes to get there.

Later, they found out that the first elevator they tried to take was broken because a group of students, drunk and careless, had jumped up and down so violently inside the elevator that it got stuck.

“That was an example of unconscious bias,” Chawla says. “It might just be a convenience for you, but it’s a necessity for some students.”

Moments like this remind Chawla that the biggest barriers to accessibility on campus weren’t always physical structures, but rather, ignorance from peers and administrators.

Chawla describes her first year as frustrating and isolating. She often found herself sitting alone on Friday nights, scrolling through her Instagram to see her peers posting photos of themselves at parties and club socials. No one had asked her if she wanted to come. “People would exclude me or they wouldn’t want to be friends with me because I couldn’t do these inaccessible things that they wanted to do,” she says.

Chawla sees HUDJ as a way to bridge the divide between disabled and able-bodied students. For instance, at the Student Leader’s Forum this year, HUDJ members hosted a workshop with the DAO and the University Disability Resources office where they took club leaders through several scenarios to teach them how to promote a culture of inclusivity, from avoiding ableist language to holding events in accessible spaces.

“Even though the change is happening slowly, it’s still happening,” she adds. “Every small change, every small improvement is a win because accessibility is so rarely thought of or focused on.”

Space for Joy and Pride

Tired of feeling “FOMO” from missing parties and big campus events, Chanel Washington decided to take matters into her own hands. She became president of the House Committee in Quincy House and used her role to ensure that every House event was accessible to all students. But her leadership didn’t stop inside the Houses.

The organization she poured much of her time and energy into was the Harvard College Disability Alliance, which she founded in 2013. In the beginning, Washington says that the club’s meetings were held in the narrow hallways of Thayer basement (“with the rats,” she says, laughing). Students would share their experiences and “life hacks,” such as the location of broken automatic door openers to avoid on campus.

According to Washington, there were significant challenges in getting the Disability Alliance recognized as an official student organization — a requirement for accessing funding and booking rooms. She says there were sentiments among administrators that collective action from disabled students would cause challenges.

The Disability Alliance adapted in light of these challenges. They expanded club membership to able-bodied students and shifted their work to educational initiatives. In November 2013, the Disability Alliance hosted the first Disability Pride Week at Harvard where they organized educational panels and speaker events.

Washington was ultimately happy with how the Disability Alliance functioned, despite the frustrating restrictions posed by the administration. “Fighting them, in some instances, was too exhausting,” she says. “That’s kind of one of the themes throughout college or needing accommodations. It felt like a job in and of itself.”

In any case, she found that simply having a supportive community within the Disability Alliance was helpful. “To interact with someone who truly does have the same experience makes you feel more validated, a little less alone,” she says. “There’s a feeling of comfort that you’re not wrong for feeling a certain way, or you’re not imagining a challenge that doesn’t actually exist.”

Today, HUDJ is continuing the Disability Alliance’s work in promoting solidarity among disabled students. Richman, the HUDJ co-president, sees building an identity-affirming space as one of HUDJ’s biggest accomplishments.

“It’s been a place where people have been able to relax a little bit more than other spaces on campus,” she says. “Frequently, disability is stigmatized and denigrated, so having spaces for disabled joy and pride is very important,” she adds.

Though their disabilities vary, many disabled students have spoken about the power of their friendships.

Sonya R. Ganeshram ’24 used to feel singled out in classrooms and dining halls. Wherever she goes, Athena, her service dog, comes along. The golden retriever, who occasionally sports pink streaks in her fur to match Sonya’s dyed hair, is oohed and aahed by students and passersby.

Ganeshram, who has chronic health issues, trained Athena to complete dozens of tasks for her: Using smell, she can detect when Ganeshram might have a medical onset before symptoms begin, pull her over to a chair, and fetch her medication bag and water bottle. With Athena by her side, Ganeshram feels safe.

Ganeshram runs an Instagram account in Athena’s name, @athenaservicepup, posting glimpses of her daily life navigating the world with her beloved “pawfessional.” She appreciates being able to connect with other service dog handlers because the attention she gets from strangers and peers can feel depersonalizing. “I’m more than just a girl with a dog,” she says. “People, I’ll meet them, and they remember my dog’s name and not my name.”

But since last year, other students with service and guide dogs have found Ganeshram through her Instagram and HUDJ, forming a tight-knit circle of on-campus handlers.

The handlers schedule playtime for their dogs in House courtyards and local parks and send messages throughout the day to warn each other of unruly pets around campus that could distract their working dogs’ focus. They also teamed up to maintain their dogs’ training, like practicing to not react when other animals pass.

“My dog used to not have any other dog friends to interact with or play with, and now she has a whole friend group that she hangs out with almost every day,” Ganeshram says.

Because of her prior experience navigating campus with a dog, Ganeshram has become a resource for other handlers. Over the years, she has learned to collaborate with teaching staff and the DAO to bring Athena to all her classes, including setting up a protocol for Athena to come to organic chemistry lab (they decided Athena needed goggles and boots). “For most of my classes, I’m a first,” Ganeshram says. “I had to come up with and be engaged in that plan. There’s no written rules or regulations or anything laid out for me.”

She offers plenty of tips to the others for the day-to-day, too: where to find trash cans for throwing out poop, where to buy dog food.

“So like, sometimes I’ll just text her a question and be like, ‘My dog is doing this. Is this normal? Like, what do I do? Who do I call to help me?’” Emma M. Vrabel ’25 says.

Vrabel, who is blind, navigated campus using a white cane up until earlier this year, when she was matched with a black lab guide dog named Holly. Putting her trust in Holly meant Vrabel could travel faster and with more confidence.

“The bond that you have with your dog is so incredible,” Vrabel says, “so having people that can understand exactly what you’re going through is huge.”

Every week, Vrabel also meets other blind students on campus for dinners in a tradition that they’ve titled “blinner.”

Sonya R. Ganeshram ’24 (left), and Emma Vrabel ’25 (right) with their dogs Athena and Holly.
Sonya R. Ganeshram ’24 (left), and Emma Vrabel ’25 (right) with their dogs Athena and Holly. By Jose A. Avalos

One of the biggest things Vrabel appreciates about her friendships with other disabled students is humor, allowing her to be more open about her daily experiences with ocular albinism — a condition that causes occasional migraines — in ways that she says able-bodied people don’t understand.

“It’s sometimes easier to have conversations with other disabled people, because you can say things that would make an able-bodied person feel very scared without much of a reaction,” she says.

“I could be like, ‘Everything is spinning and it hurts really bad,’” she says. “With an able-bodied person, they’re like, ‘Are you dying? Do you need to call someone?’ ‘No, this is just a Tuesday, it’s fine,’” she adds.

Without a dedicated affinity space like HUDJ, it can be hard to find other disabled students.

In high school, Ben T. Elwy ’24 remembers being the only visibly disabled student in his classes. “When I came to college, it was this transformative experience to go to a place where I wasn't the only disabled person,” he says. The connections he made with other disabled students empowered him to embrace being disabled as an identity, and he started writing a column for The Crimson, “Living a Disabled Life”.

Disabled alumni and allies have also united under a Shared Interest Group in the Harvard Alumni Association. Ellison, who initiated the process of starting the SIG, says that she garnered more signatures than any other campaign in HAA’s history. “This was a major, major gap that needed to be filled,” she says.

Although these connections have been powerful to students and alumni alike, HUDJ leaders still say that Harvard has been slow to embrace and support disabled students.

“Disability isn’t talked about, or studied, or viewed, really, as a form of diversity or its own identity group,” Richman says.

‘A HUDJ Rager’

Since Section 504 and the ADA were enacted, institutions like Harvard have had to establish accommodations for disabled students.

But 50 years after the first legislation, students feel that the College pins much of the responsibility to arrange their own accommodations on them, which can take a toll.

Banding together through HUDJ, disabled students are trying to hold the College accountable for making systemic changes, not just to better support them, but to better integrate them into the greater student body.

In the classroom, students are hoping for something more meaningful than just adjustments and rearrangements. They want their peers and teachers to see them as valuable, not in spite of, but because of their disabilities.

Today, disabled students don’t just want to get by. They want what many of their able-bodied peers have: They want to drink boxed wine at a dorm party on a Friday night, they want dry cereal while they struggle through problem sets at late-night office hours, they want an obscenely expensive ticket to Fête.

Able-bodied students can benefit from more inclusive spaces as well. Every day, hundreds of students and tourists take advantage of Accessible Pedestrian Signals to more safely cross Massachusetts Ave. They wouldn’t be there without Katie Sevier.

Moreover, disabled students have unique perspectives to share. Harvard loses something when disabled students are left on the margins. Though ultimately, it’s not about diversity — it’s about equity, pure and simple.

At the beginning of her freshman year, Maureen Clare was looking to dive into Harvard’s literary scene. She signed up to comp a number of writing and comedy clubs, but many of them involved traditions she couldn’t participate in because of her chronic illness. Ultimately, she stuck with only a few.

“There’s a lot of things in college, especially with a club — you can call it bonding, you can call it hazing, you can call it initiations, whatever you want — that are tied to an idea of being young and stupid. And often that means putting your body at some physical risk,” she says. “They forget that not everybody’s body can be young and stupid.”

Eventually, she committed to only one club, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. Over the next three years, Clare dedicated her time to putting on the Pudding’s annual musical theater production, writing the script for two years in a row and making many close friends along the way.

And she can trace her sense of belonging at the Pudding to a single small gesture.

Clare and the other Pudding hopefuls had been gathered in a room to celebrate their initiation into the club. The leaders passed around cups of spiked jungle juice to everyone. When they came to Clare, they slipped her one filled with plain juice. For Clare, who couldn’t drink alcohol due to medical risks, the gesture was relieving and reassuring.

Maureen Clare '24 (first row, far left) with the rest of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
Maureen Clare '24 (first row, far left) with the rest of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. By Courtesy of Hasty Pudding Theatricals

“I wasn’t gonna get excluded because of things I couldn’t change,” she says. “There was someone quietly looking out for me. It meant privacy, safety, and an assurance that they could customize the experience to fit me, which was rare.”

To Clare, inclusion and accessibility isn’t always bound up in the big things — it can be as subtle as a friend who finds the elevator, a Zoom link to lecture, water in a wine glass.

“If I were going to talk about my idealized, beautiful, futuristic world, for me that’s a HUDJ rager, where you have electrolytes on hand, it’s air-conditioned, it’s wheelchair accessible, there’s a big fluffy couch where people who need to sit or nap can do it halfway through the party, the music’s not too loud,” she imagines. “It exists in my head, and would be crazy and cool.”

“But reckoning with the fact that it doesn’t exist, I have found other outlets,” she continues. “That has been up to the people around me.”

Corrections: October 1, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly described the Fallen Angels as an all-female vocal group. In fact, the group is open to anyone who does not identify as male.

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Marc I. Fiedler ’78.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Brooke M. Ellison ’00 was the first quadriplegic person to attend Harvard. In fact, she was one of the first quadriplegic people to graduate from Harvard.

Correction: October 5, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that students who use wheelchairs could not attend Fête at Eliot House due to a lack of ramps. In fact, though this was true in the past, organizers now provide ramps for the celebration.

— Magazine writer John Lin can be reached at john.lin@thecrimson.com.

— Associate Magazine Editor Dina R. Zeldin can be reached at dina.zeldin@thecrimson.com.

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