Rachel Lit, '25
The Intersection of Disability and Environmental Justice
In our house, the TV volume is always at level 19. The shades on our windows have to be drawn and the pillows on the couch aren’t allowed to touch each other. If someone else opens the door, we need to go back inside and do it over again so my brother can be the one to open it.
When he was three, my younger brother, Joey, was diagnosed with autism. Joey has taught me the importance of patience and instilled in me the values of diversity and inclusion, shaping me into an advocate for children with special needs.
It was through my love for Joey that I pursued a Cardinal Quarter the summer after my freshman year. Through the Stanford in Government Fellowships program, I was able to spend ten weeks in Washington, D.C. with the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), a nonprofit organization that advocates for disability justice through education policy and research to improve the lives of students with learning and attention issues.
As one of a 12-person organization, my role as a member of NCLD's Policy and Advocacy Team exposed me to the hands-on, intimate nature of the nonprofit lobbyist world. Through drafting press releases and education policy roundups, lobbying for increased education funding to members of Congress, and creating interactive tools to help students with disabilities navigate post-high school opportunities, I came to understand how political advocacy is key in purposefully supporting the disability community.
What stands out to me most during my time at NCLD, however, was my ability to pursue an independent research project, where I focused on environmental pollutants and how they pose major risk factors for learning disabilities in children. As a student interested in public health and ecological science and a sister passionate about equity in education, this was the perfect intersection of two social movements of which I am equally concerned: environmental justice and disability justice.
Through my research, I was able to accomplish an understanding of how children with learning disabilities are impacted by issues surrounding environmental hazards and social determinants of health. Marginalized and minority communities in this country are at greater risk of developing learning disabilities, a contributing factor to many environmental justice issues that are being exacerbated by current changing atmospheric conditions.
My Cardinal Service experience contributed to my intellectual development and civic engagement in more ways than I can successfully put into words. While I have always had an interest in policy and government, I came into this experience somewhat naïve: I did not know much about federal education policy, let alone how a nonprofit functions day-to-day or advocates for change. My time in D.C. provided a rich opportunity for me to delve deeply into developing my content expertise in a few specific and important aspects of disability and environmental issues, while also learning about the process and organizations that matter in shaping federal policy.
Most importantly, my Cardinal Quarter allowed me to work with a purpose and reflect on my values, something which I especially appreciated as I find that mindfulness often takes a back seat when caught up in the hustle and bustle of typical Stanford-student-chaos. By spending a summer focused on inclusivity and service-based work, compassion became central to my daily life. I was advocating on behalf of those who needed their voices amplified — those like Joey — which I truly believe has worked to make me a better community member and, overall, a better person.