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Elite Private Schools and Discrimination Against Children with Disabilities

As you know, RespectAbility works to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. We have learned that a barrier to civil rights is that elite private schools – places where children of current leaders and influential people go to train to be leaders themselves – do not frequently welcome children with disabilities. We took at look at more than 90 elite schools that are considered “Ivy League Feeder Schools.” We know that their graduates go on to Harvard, Yale and other top schools – and then to policy and corporate leadership positions. 

In our study we looked at each of the elite school’s websites and found that most of them had diversity policies that were big on race, religion, national origin and in many cases sexual orientation. What was missing? Qualified applicants with disabilities – who in most cases were left off the list. It’s as if we don’t exist or are sub-human. 

Mind you, we know that reading a website is never enough to get to know a school. Thus, we sent a certified letter to the heads of each of these schools to introduce these issues and ask them to be open to inclusion and equality. Then we followed that up with another letter and as many as three calls each. Many of the schools are still ducking us. However, to their credit, some schools have been amazing. Thus, I’d like to congratulate the following schools for either already serving children with disabilities or committing to do more to welcome, serve, employ and respect qualified people with disabilities.  Thanks to:

Sadly, those were the only schools out of more than 90 who reached back or put inclusion front and center in their materials. In our letters to the schools we explained that many of their graduates will become top policymakers, CEOs, and leaders in other fields.  The thinking of these future leaders will be framed in part by the education they receive and the relationships they form at their school.  The richer and more diverse these experiences are, the deeper background they will draw on as leaders. Thus, we want to be sure that their students learn about people with disabilities and that they have peer-to-peer relationships with people with disabilities.

We also explained to the schools that in 2015 we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA is the bedrock civil rights law for people with disabilities.  We told them that we hope that their school will join in some of the celebrations that will be taking place during the year and that they will include disability studies in their educational program during this anniversary year and in the years that follow. To give them a sense of what is possible, we prepared a set of resources, which are available on our website at
We expanded to point out that a quarter of a century after the passage of the ADA, we know that the student body and faculty at many top schools include few, if any, people with disabilities. We appreciate that NAIS has some resources and recommend they be in touch with them. We also encouraged them to immediately create a strategic plan for inclusion of students and staff with disabilities and act on it so that their future classes will have several highly qualified applicants with disabilities and that they will be prepared to welcome them fully. 


Let us be clear, we are not suggesting that schools change their high academic standards.  Rather, we are encouraging them to affirmatively recruit, admit, and welcome students with disabilities who meet those standards, with or without reasonable accommodations, as well as qualified faculty and other staff.  To help them develop this plan, we included a list of questions their school community can ask to measure their level of access and inclusion. Please see that list below.

We explained something that I think you know — despite the ADA, fully 70% of working age Americans with disabilities are not in the workforce (compared to 28% of those without disabilities). One of the reasons for that fact is that so many Americans believe that people with disabilities are not competent. Frankly, we could take a big step in addressing this injustice if outstanding schools like these elite schools affirmatively welcome people with disabilities into their communities. We believe that the time for inclusion is now.
This past year there was rightfully a lot of attention on race relations because of the 50th MLK anniversary. Next year, there will be attention on disability issues because of the 25th anniversary of the ADA.  We hope that all of us will take advantage of this important milestone to begin to celebrate inclusion and to establish ongoing positive practices that will foster inclusion of people with disabilities for years to come. 

We look forward to celebrating and working with all who want to make positive change. 

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
President, RespectAbilityUSA

Disability Access and Inclusion Questions to Ask About Your Own School

Inclusion Policies



Has your school published a policy that includes a commitment not to discriminate on the basis of disability?
Does your school have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels, including on your board of directors?

Does your school have a disability advisory committee/inclusion committee?


Admissions Process



Do you encourage students with disabilities to apply to your school?

In your written application process, do you ask whether applicants are disabled?
(the answer to this question should be ‘no’)

In your application process, do you evaluate students with disabilities based on their individual qualifications without making assumptions related to their disabilities?


Current Students



Do you have at least one student who identifies as having a disability?


Reasonable Accommodations



Do you have a process through which students can request and receive reasonable accommodations for, e.g., 
• Admissions Process
• Class Work
• Testing
• Physical access
• Technology access
• Medical needs
• Discipline
• Changing clothes for physical education
• Graduation Requirements

Do you allow students/faculty to be accompanied by personal care attendants?

Do you have a nurse or medication technician on staff?

Do you have a psychologist or social work on staff?


Physical Access



Can someone using a wheelchair or other mobility device navigate through all of your facilities, e.g.,
• Doorways
• Hallways
• Bathrooms
• All floors of building(s)
• Cafeteria
• Gymnasium
• Other sports and cultural facilities


Technology Access



Have you taken steps to ensure that your website is accessible to people with disabilities?


Diversity Programs



Do you include disability as an aspect of diversity in your programming aimed at creating an inclusive educational environment?





Is the disability rights movement studied as part of your social studies curriculum?

Are books by and/or about people with disabilities included in your English curriculum?





Do you have programs to prevent bullying of all students?

Do your anti-bullying programs include one or more elements designed to prevent bullying of students with disabilities?


Faculty and Staff



Does you EEO policy include a commitment not to discriminate on the basis of disability?

Does your school employ and/or offer internships to individuals who have disabilities?  Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions?


Faculty Training



Has everyone on your faculty and staff received training on disability etiquette/acceptance?

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email [email protected]

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