August 27th, 2012
04:09 PM ET

September's legacy: Taking on Harvard in a wheelchair

by Ben Mattlin, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Ben Mattlin is the author of "Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity," a memoir about his life with spinal muscular atrophy.

(CNN) - For many, back-to-school is a season of anticipation, nostalgia, and shopping. For me, it evokes memories of an unsung historical event: the integration of Harvard.

No, I'm not talking about racial integration; I'm talking about the full inclusion of students with disabilities.

When I entered Harvard College as a freshman in 1980, it happened to coincide with a new requirement - all institutions receiving federal funds had to become fully accessible under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

I was a 17-year-old lifelong wheelchair-user, born with a neurological condition called spinal muscular atrophy. I'd never walked or stood and my arms were weak as a baby's. But, as my parents often said, there was nothing wrong with my head.

I had little awareness of the precedent I was setting.

At 17, I was too self-centered for that. I was preoccupied with how I'd cope my first time living away from my parents, depending on full-time, live-in personal-care attendants. Yet I had an Ivy League freshman's cockiness, too. Somehow I'd manage. I'd always managed before, hadn't I?

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