Improving accessibility on campus
SEAS student co-founds Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club
Getting into Harvard should’ve been a joyous moment for Sarika Chawla, now a rising fourth-year computer science student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Instead, Chawla, who uses a wheelchair, found the experience marred by ableist comments about her acceptance.
“Talk spread throughout the school and the community, among many students and parents, that I had only gotten into Harvard because of my wheelchair and not on my merit,” she said. “That really hurt, and it made me realize how much ableism is ingrained in our society.”
That experience could have devastated Chawla, but instead she used it as inspiration to be an activist for the disabled community. As a high school senior, she gave a TEDx talk on changing the perceptions of disability, and upon arrival at Harvard quickly joined the Harvard College Disability Alliance.
When that club disbanded, Chawla and several other former members founded the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club (HUDJ) at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
“It was a cause that I wanted to fight for because it not only affects my life, but so many people’s lives,” she said. “At the very least I want to raise awareness and stop all this ignorance.”
Last year, HUDJ offered multiple in-person and remote programs. In the fall, it held a series of group discussions on disability-related issues to create, in Chawla’s words, a “safe space where other disabled people could talk about their experiences with each other and also find people they could relate to.” In the spring, programming expanded to social gatherings and conversations with disabled people working in Hollywood and the federal government.
The club has even bigger plans for this coming school year, including regular meetings with administrative teams at Harvard to address issues such as COVID and fire safety policies for disabled students, the accessible van service, and accessibility considerations for the ongoing dorm renovation project. HUDJ is even considering a comedy night featuring disabled comedians. Chawla also wants to encourage more academic programming in disabled studies, building on HIST15M: Disability in American History, which will be offered in the fall.
“That new course is really great,” she said. “We’re looking forward to that, and we hope to use that to push this campaign forward even more and show there’s a need, demand and interest for disability studies at Harvard.”
Beyond serving as co-president and co-founder, Chawla’s specific responsibilities with HUDJ include managing its social media channels, sharing content created by disabled members of the Harvard community, and building on the same advocacy strategy she has used with her personal social media channels.
“I’m still very much a social media activist, because that’s a good way to reach a lot of people,” she said. “I can share not only my experiences, but the experiences of those with different disabilities than me. When COVID hit, social media activism was even more important, because we couldn’t go anywhere.”
Chawla puts her computer science education to work as manager of the HUDJ website. Before Harvard, she considered studying biology and spent one summer interning at an MIT research lab. That lab experience helped her reframe how she saw her disability, as she said in her TEDx talk, but it also clarified some of the challenges she might face as a biology major.
“Physically, biology was not the most accessible choice,” she said. “There were so many things I couldn’t reach, or I’d have to carry a beaker with one hand and wheel with my other hand, and it wasn’t the safest situation. So, I wanted to do something that was more accessible, as well as something that aligned more with my interests. Senior year I took AP java, and I really liked the coding and logic of that class. My parents also studied computer science in college, and because of those things and because computer science is accessible, it made me decide on CS.”
This summer, Chawla is working as a software development engineering intern at Amazon.
Between the Disability Alliance disbanding and COVID forcing students into remote learning, Chawla needed several years to really find the disabled community on campus. Through her efforts, the HUDJ email list has already grown into the triple digits, and will hopefully continue to grow next year.
“The disability community really grew during my junior year, and I think it was in part because the incoming freshman class had a lot more disabled people than normal,” she said. “It really grew from there once we all found each other. I have now found a disabled community at Harvard, and it’s been really fulfilling.”
Matt Goisman | firstname.lastname@example.org