Harvard University Disability Resources

February 11, 2020

Image: from left to right, Michelle Hermans, Kamala Jones, Dorian Havers, Michele Clopper, and Shelby Acteson.

Harvard University Disability Resources (UDR) has a broad, University-wide role, welcoming students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities and providing leadership on efforts to ensure an accessible, welcoming working and learning environment for individuals with disabilities while ensuring compliance with federal and state regulations. Michele Clopper, Director of UDR, Shelby Acteson, Associate Director, and Michelle Hermans, Senior Accessibility Consultant, discuss their work and the wide-ranging mission of the office.

What do you do and what is your team's biggest contribution?

Michele Clopper: We respond to all requests for assistance regarding access and disability services. Historically, the focus was on individual accommodation requests – which we still do – but now we develop and disseminate best practices and conduct many trainings. We are focused on socializing disability as we embrace this work, because it impacts all of us and those we care for. It is about equity and inclusion.

Michelle Hermans: UDR is a small team with a big scope! We provide univeristy-wide guidance on how to make Harvard accessible to people with disabilities – and this includes students, faculty, staff and visitors. I am one of three Accessibility Consultants who research and share a variety of best practices for the community on everything from making documents accessible to how to determine if a dog is a service animal to recruiting individuals with disabilities. We also offer expertise and assistance in exploring individual reasonable accommodations.

Shelby Acteson: My work focuses primarily on the experience of students with disabilities through the provision of guidance, resources and training to disability coordinators, faculty and administrators at Harvard College and the University’s professional schools. Because our office works across all populations at Harvard, one of our biggest contributions is increasing awareness of accessibility and working towards the acceptance of disability as a part of diversity, inclusion and belonging through our partnerships and outreach University-wide.


What don't people know about you and what your team does?

Michelle H.: That our work is not only rooted in compliance but also in disability as an aspect of diversity. We strive to create inclusive environments and welcome conversations with departments about what they can do to foster disability inclusion and belonging, for example, how to host an accessible meeting. We also recently launched a class through CWD entitled, “Disability Inclusion.”

Michele C.: We may consult with anyone or everyone on campus, including guests. Commonly, we are asked to consult for a specific situation such as reviewing the website language or practice of a particular group/unit/School. It’s hard to know what people don’t know about our work. It depends on how someone learns about UDR or what event brings them to our office.

Shelby: Our team has a wealth of knowledge about accessibility foundations and best practices. Our website features resources and guidance for anyone who works with students, faculty, staff, or visitors to Harvard or anyone who just wants to learn more about accessibility. We provide accessibility presentations and trainings and are happy to tailor them to a department’s needs. We also manage internal information banks specific to employment and student disability services for our partners in HR and student support services in each of the schools.  


What is the most challenging thing about your work?

Shelby: Many people only think about disability in terms of conditions that are visible, for example, someone who is blind, someone who uses a wheelchair, or someone who communicates via assistive technology or an interpreter. The majority of the people we work with have disabilities that are invisible, for example, learning disabilities like attention deficit disorder (ADD) and dyslexia; mental health conditions like anxiety and depression; and chronic health conditions like diabetes and Crohn’s disease. It’s important that we continue to work to shift thinking around disability to embrace and include people with all types of conditions, free of bias, stigma and judgement.

Michele C.: There are many well-intentioned folks who want to do the ‘right thing’ but view disability as a hush-hush private medical matter to address. So, it remains hidden, with people sometimes afraid to ask or self-disclose. Folks do not realize that disability is the largest under-represented intersectional group, with one in 5 people having a disability, according to the US census. We need to socialize disability as a normal element of the human condition. Anyone who lives long enough will have a disability.

Michelle H.: It’s also challenging when accessibility is not taken into consideration during the planning stages of any given initiative and later causes barriers for someone with a disability to participate.


What are the professional backgrounds of your team members?

Michele C: There is no one career path to prepare someone for this work. The UDR team reflects this as we have members with academic backgrounds in photography, graphic arts, rehabilitation counseling, education, and liberal arts. Personally, I am an occupational therapist who has had the opportunity to work with individuals with different physical and mental health diagnoses to assist them in addressing their functionality and efficacy. Additionally, I have been an educator in my field and accreditor for academic programs within my discipline. Serendipitously, I saw a posted position at Harvard looking for someone to assist employees in returning to work after a disability leave and I thought, “what a great job” and here I am.

Shelby: As Michele said, there isn’t a clear pathway to disability services work, though many people come into the field through social work, psychology, social justice/disability law and from an advocacy/lived experience perspective. I came to disability services through higher education, and my experience in curriculum development, instructional design and student learning support provides an academic foundation to my work with students. In recent years, a few Disability Services academic programs have emerged, as have Disability Studies programs, both of which are providing a more directed path to disability services work.  

Michelle H.: I’ve been at Harvard for eight years now, and my background is in Human Resources where I managed employee relations and administered leaves of absences.


What does success/your best day look like?

Michelle H.: When I hear feedback from someone that they felt supported and included by the resources and experiences they had here as a person with a disability.

Michele C.: It is wonderful when someone reaches out for the first time to seek guidance or when a reluctant user asks for the mic for the first time, before contributing to a meeting. For me, actively participating in a culture change where intersectionality recognizes and includes disability at the table with everyone else is the best.

Shelby: A good day is one when we work with our partners to remove barriers and provide the access that allows someone with a disability (or anyone for that matter) to fully participate in the programs and activities that Harvard has to offer and feel like they are welcome and belong here.

When this process also increases people’s understanding of the positive impact of accessible practices for everyone, it results in more thinking and acting from an inclusive perspective, and the work (and success) becomes that of the whole community, not just our office.