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NewsApr 18, 2019

Coming home to progress, and challenges ahead

Sankofa lecturer Sandy Ho ’09, a White House-honored disabilities activist, discusses impact of Lesley on her career and life

Photograph of young woman in a blue dress and a black sweater seated in a wheelchair holding a piece of paper on a stage.

At some point in their university career, every student faces barriers.

Some are physical barriers to entry, as when a student in a wheelchair encounters a door that doesn’t open all the way, even when the access button is pushed. Others are social barriers, as a student confronts outright mistreatment or more subtle indignities because of race, economic class, sexual orientation or gender.

Even more universal are the barriers we place before ourselves, questioning whether we belong because of our self-perceived limitations of intelligence, abilities, social skills or intrinsic worth as human beings.

But people knock down barriers every day. Sandy Ho, a 2009 Global Studies graduate who uses a motorized wheelchair and identified herself as a “disabled, queer, Asian woman,” shared her spirit of triumph and activism Tuesday night as the guest speaker of the Sankofa Lecture series. 

Photograph of two women, Sandy Ho and Alice Diamond, in Washburn auditorium as Sandy Ho presents the Sankofa lecture
Associate Dean for Career and Community Alice Diamond with guest lecturer and Lesley alumna Sandy Ho '09.

See more photos from the event.

Speaking to about two dozen attendees, Ho — an activist and educator on issues regarding access for people with disabilities — talked about her time at Lesley, reading a letter she had written to her younger self.

“You knew you’d get there someday. That moment in late August of 2005 when you’re sitting in your dorm room in Mackenzie Hall, feeling equal parts light and vulnerable,” the letter opens. “Light because the second your parents leave you, your first order of business is to do away with all of your disability accommodations by hiding the leg braces in the back corner of your closet. You take down the emergency phone numbers to doctors from your bulletin board and replace them with posters of Green Day. You shuffle away the forms requesting extended time on exams, and you even put away the hearing aids and the ugly, boxy F.M. system, stashing it all in the bottom-most drawer of your desk.

“Those were all the things they saw as accommodations, but you only experienced them as markers that made you different.”

Ho was born with a medical condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, which affects her stature and makes her bones fragile. She uses a motorized wheelchair and, because no one in her family or among her Weston, Mass., schoolmates used a wheelchair, she had little guidance on her particular path to college and success.

Though she enrolled at Lesley, she had more barriers to overcome, including feelings of vulnerability.

“There’s nothing quite like the first time you breathe in freedom and exhale uncertainty,” Ho said. Her letter to her younger self explored her inner turmoil.

Jennifer Castro poses with Sandy Ho at the Sankofa lecture
Director of Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion Jennifer Castro and Sandy Ho '09.

“Behind closed doors of your new dorm room, you are shifting the weight of disability and how you present, exploring how much is too disabled, how much is enough, how much is too different, how much help can you ask for before it is an unreasonable accommodation, how much difference can I hold before I am either ‘so inspiring’ or ‘so special,’ and most of all — will there be a place for me here in this place?”

Sandy Ho has found her place.

A career of activism

In 2015, the White House named Ho a Champion of Change for her work with the Easter Seals to create a mentorship program for young women with disabilities. Ho traveled to the White House, where she was honored and spoke as part of a panel commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ho’s other advocacy work has included an internship on the Service Nation campaign, work as a research assistant at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and work as a research associate for the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University, in the area of human trafficking.

And she also returned to Lesley to co-teach a course on Disability Studies with Associate Professor Janet Sauer.

“I wouldn’t be returning home at all if it weren’t for Janet Sauer,” Ho said. “Janet is the reason why I ever became comfortable saying the words, ‘I’m a disabled community activist’ in academic spaces.” Ho added that her work in the classroom was among the highlights of her career.

Ho also praised the Office of Multicultural Affairs & Student Inclusion, and its director Jennifer Castro, as well as students Emily Steinberg and Chloe Fay, the latter of whom was in Sauer and Ho’s Disability Studies class. Fay participated in an on-stage conversation during the second portion of Tuesday’s Sankofa Lecture, which was held in Washburn Auditorium.

Chloe Fay (left) in conversation with Sandy Ho '09.
Chloe Fay (left) in conversation with Sandy Ho '09.

During the conversation, Ho and Fay repeatedly expressed the need to balance the tendency to take on the world’s problems against focusing on issues closer to home.

“We all need some level of access,” Ho said. “If we aren’t able to talk about ourselves on campus … sending (our expertise) out into the community sometimes does more harm than good.”

Fay mentioned that Tuesday’s lecture, held in Washburn Auditorium, was originally scheduled to be in Marran Theater, a much less accessible place for people with disabilities, indicating that there’s plenty of work yet to do.

Ho agreed that the question is one of making all students and Lesley community members — regardless of whether they have a disability — aware of the barriers.

And she sees tangible reasons for optimism. When she was a student, she accessed the Doble Campus via Parking Lot B, “past the dumpsters,” as that was the only way her wheelchair could pass. Today, the university has a new entryway, right in the heart of the quad, with slightly inclined paths allowing for wheelchair access.

In addition, “As an alumna, I’m finally able to get access to Alumni Hall,” thanks to the elevator installed at Stebbins Hall several years ago.

Alluding to the university’s former slogan “Wake Up the World,” Ho said, “Lesley University cared enough to ask the tough questions.”