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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
A majority of Harvard Kennedy School affiliates with disabilities said the school is not inclusive of people with disabilities and lacks accessibility, according to a newly released report from the HKS Disability Justice Caucus.
The report surveyed 379 HKS affiliates, representing 27 percent of students, 36 percent of faculty, and 11 percent of staff. Respondents answered a series of questions about accessibility issues at the school and the prevalence of disability policy issues in HKS courses. Members of the Disability Justice Caucus used the report’s findings to produce recommendations for the Kennedy School’s administration to improve the school’s accessibility.
Priscilla A. A. Mensah, a student at the Kennedy School who currently serves as chair of the Disability Justice Caucus, presented the report to HKS affiliates at an event Friday afternoon. Mensah said she organized the event — which was held one day prior to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities — for the “express purpose of bringing issues of disability, justice, and inclusion from the margin to the center of the learning experience here at HKS.”
The report found that affiliates believe the Kennedy School should improve the accessibility of its classrooms and buildings, with 37.5 percent of affiliates — a plurality — somewhat or strongly disagreeing that HKS is physically accessible to people with disabilities.
HKS spokesperson Sofiya C. Cabalquinto wrote in a statement to The Crimson that “HKS is committed to creating an environment that is accessible to, and inclusive of, all of our community members.”
“We are grateful to the student leaders of the Disability Justice Caucus for helping to collect feedback so we can better understand our students’ experiences,” Cabalquinto wrote. “We will continue to work closely with students to provide accommodations and improve support and learning opportunities so that our campus is a place where all can thrive.”
Mensah said she was motivated to produce the report after her fall 2021 statistics course required students with accommodations to arrive at 6:30 a.m. to take their final exam. While the course eventually changed its exam policy after receiving student feedback, Mensah said the experience had a lasting impact on her.
“For students like me who use the day van in the morning or for students who go to the cafeteria because they can’t, due to disability, cook for themselves, that would have obviously meant that they were dramatically inconvenienced,” Mensah said.
“That, for me, was just a really clear example of how things can be so differential for disabled students in the HKS experience,” Mensah added. “And the goal is always to move towards there being equity between all classmates.”
Theodore “Teddy” Svoronos, the professor who taught Mensah’s statistics class, attended the event on Friday where he expressed gratitude to Mensah for discussing ways to make his class more accessible for students.
“It wasn’t until we really heard from students and got that feedback that we realized we should do things differently,” Svoronos said.
Surveyed students also believe HKS should include more course content about disability policy issues, with 81 percent saying they somewhat or strongly disagree that “HKS is doing enough to prepare its students to work with populations with disabilities once they graduate.”
In the report’s recommendations, the Disability Justice Caucus calls on the Kennedy School to “increase the number of faculty and administrators possessing policy expertise and practice in the area of disability and accessibility.”
Mensah said she hopes disability policy issues gain a more prominent role in HKS courses.
“I want this institution to have disability-related content in everything — in every course across the board,” Mensah said, “so that we can say that everything that the Kennedy School does, as well as in the area of disability inclusion, really aligns with its values.”
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.
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