AS A STUDENT AT HARVARD Law School, Michael Ashley Stein was aware of how privileged he was. But as someone with a disability (a rare illness had left him in a wheelchair at 14), he was also deeply conscious of what it meant to be an outsider. Because of a lack of elevators, he had to push himself through the snow and ice during the winter while classmates stayed warm in underground tunnels; as the first person with a disability on the staff of the Harvard Law Review, he dragged himself up stairs to the office. “I certainly learned what it was like to live as someone semi-deprived,” Stein says. At the same time, “I never quite lost the perspective of how lucky I am relative to many people not only in this country, but in the developing world.”
The 49-year-old didn’t set out in law school to become a disability advocate, but in retrospect it was almost inevitable. “I came to law school and learned all about rights and justice,” he says. “But there was very little access for me.” After graduation in 1988, he worked as an attorney in New York and became active in disability civil rights. Later, as an academic, he moved on to international disability rights and participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Now he takes an elevator to a third-floor office at his alma mater as a visiting professor of law and director and cofounder of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, which was started in 2004 and aims to help implement the convention around the world.