Michael Ashley Stein
Co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability; Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School

Scholar, Mensch, and Disability Rights Champion:

A Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

It is a deep honor and a sheer delight to join this Tribute for my very wonderful friend and colleague Professor William P. Alford, celebrating the eighteen years he enabled Harvard Law School (“HLS”) as vice dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies. That period is part of the more than thirty years dedicated by Bill to developing international legal studies in and beyond the HLS community. Bill has been HLS’s backbone (or, in Chinese, gugan “骨干”) in these endeavors, fostering the international and comparative law curriculum, facilitating and supporting many of the globe’s leading international scholars to visit and teach; tirelessly and freely giving his already overextended time as a mentor to thousands of JD, LLM, and SJD students; chairing East Asian Legal Studies (“EALS”) the country’s oldest and most prominent related law program; and co-founding and chairing the Harvard Law School Project on Disability (“HPOD”), considered one of the globe’s most preeminent disability rights research and advocacy center—and all the while generating top-notch scholarship and being recognized as one of HLS’s most beloved teachers. Other contributors to this Tribute will take up Bill’s many virtues which have rightfully earned him generations of student devotees, an honorary doctorate, honorary professorships and fellowships, and the HLS Association’s highest accolade. As HPOD’s co-founder and executive director, and as his extremely fortunate collaborator, I will instead focus on Bill’s essential role in developing and encouraging HPOD and point out some of the work we have achieved worldwide over the past sixteen years. Readers seeking further details are encouraged to visit our website at www.hpod.org.
Bill and I were introduced in 2002 by our mutual and good friend Professor Martha Minow, who said, “You have complementary interests in disability rights and international law, and have a similar sense of humor.” As usual, she was correct. Bill was working with Special Olympics International and was thinking in advance about how to utilize the upcoming 2005 World Winter Games in Nagano and the 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai to raise awareness about the rights of persons with intellectual disabilities in those countries, as well as globally. I was teaching at William & Mary Law School, was moving to HLS in 2003 to focus on scholarship as a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program, and had just began the first of five years commuting to the United Nations in New York in order to participate in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“CRPD”), the first international human rights treaty specifically empowering disabled persons. We chatted for over an hour, and Bill’s been stuck with me ever since.

Bill and I co-founded HPOD in 2004, driven by our shared desire to conduct research and advocacy that would empower the over one billion disabled persons across the globe, with a special emphasis on individuals with intellectual disabilities. Since then, HPOD has been responsible for the development of a wealth of scholarship and numerous human rights education materials; the latter are available open-source and free on our website in multiple languages, including easy-to-read versions for self-advocates with intellectual disabilities, and videos featuring some of the self-advocates with whom we collaborate. Notably, we have worked in some forty-four countries, including increasingly at home in the United States, and always pro bono, on a range of projects ranging from law and policy reform to fomenting support groups for parents to advocate with and for their children with various disabilities. Our projects always involve local disabled persons and their representative organizations (“DPOs”) on the notions that everyone knows her own needs and priorities best, and that stakeholders must take pride and ownership in any activity. In doing so, HPOD adheres to the international disability rights mantra of “nothing about us without us.” We also have worked with a wide range of U.N. agencies, and like-minded civil society organizations and academic institutions. HPOD activities are developed and governed by an ethos of serving persons with disabilities, with humility, by learning from their lived experiences and scrupulously avoiding imperialistic presumptions. We also have intervened in dozens of cases involving disability rights at the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, national level Supreme and Constitutional courts, as well as other venues.

HPOD’s academic footprint has also been global. To give just one example, in 2007, HPOD partnered with Renmin University of China Law School (“Renda”) to convene the first disability rights conference in China. To do so, we brought disability rights scholars from around the world to discuss openly the different approaches that countries take to creating and enforcing national level obligations. Following on this cooperative dialogue, Renda created the first disability law clinic in China, exchanged scholars and students with HLS, and generated scholarship revolving around disability rights. Similarly, former HPOD visitors have gone on to teach the first disability rights courses in their home countries, and to generate the first disability rights scholarship in those nations.

HPOD activities include marvelous HLS students who bring their energy and enthusiasm and often develop life-long interests in advocating for persons with disabilities in their professional and personal lives after law school. In addition to sponsoring talks and other events, often featuring self-advocates with disabilities, Bill and I each teach disability rights courses, supervise student research, support visiting scholars, and endeavor to facilitate an evolving culture at HLS toward valuing disability as part of an overall culture of valuing diversity.

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Beyond being able to celebrate some of HPOD’s terrific achievements since 2004, writing this tribute is a pleasure because it permits me to extol the virtues of the otherwise incredibly diffident Bill without his being able to deflect that praise. HPOD has succeeded in no small measure for the same reasons that EALS and international legal studies at HLS have succeeded—because of Bill’s wisdom, generosity, kindness, and devotion. He is an absolutely extraordinary person, and his friendship has been essential to HPOD as well as a great blessing in my life.

We, at HPOD, have been very fortunate to receive numerous awards for our work, collectively and individually, although our practice has been to accept these accolades communally, recognizing that our endeavors reflect teamwork and support. Among these manifold awards: the Parent Advocates for Visually Impaired Children (“PAVIC”) of the Philippines conferred their “National Advocate Award” to HPOD following on joint activities that resulted in 600 visually impaired children being enrolled in school; HPOD was feted by the National Grassroots Disability Organization and the National Counsel of Women with Disabilities, both of Bangladesh, for “tireless efforts, dedication, and solidarity” with local disability rights groups; Bill received the Li Buyun Law Prize for outstanding contributions to Chinese legal research, disability rights, and educational exchange; and I was named by Boston Globe Magazine as being among those “Bostonians Changing the World.”

Naturally these accolades encourage us and serve as affirmation of our work, and we are grateful for the attention they direct to HPOD. Yet Bill always seems happiest in the company of the self-advocates that HPOD serves, most pleased when members of HPOD’s DPO partners come to HLS and interact with our students, and proudest of the achievements that directly impact the lived experiences of those self-advocates and their families. Aside from the love he expresses to his family, no joy compares to the look on Bill’s face when moderating a panel of Special Olympic athletes or self-advocates with intellectual disabilities from Massachusetts Standing Strong or the Self-Advocacy Association of New York discussing their lives and how being able to claim their rights and be more active in their communities has improved their day-to-day experiences. Related, and emblematic of his tremendous empathy, it was a close competition between Bill and my own father as to who was happiest when I was given the inaugural Morten E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, more recently bestowed on former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin who, among other achievements, sponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Selfishly, and despite my deep regard for HLS, Bill’s stepping down makes me glad because it means he’ll be able to channel more of his working days toward HPOD, and we’ll have more time together to pursue justice for persons with disabilities and to engage on related teaching and scholarship. As I have made a point of reciting at every annual HPOD Open House, I feel supremely lucky to be able to work daily on projects I love, on behalf of individuals I love, and with colleagues I love. Thank you, Bill, for making that possible.