This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

Ariella Barker, M.C./M.P.A. ’20, has spent her life taking on the workplace challenges faced by people with disabilities.

As the graduate returns to her job as an attorney for the city of New York, litigating employment discrimination and labor law cases, the challenges have become all the more urgent — and universal — amid the COVD-19 pandemic. Returning to workspaces when there is a probability of being sickened? Remote work? Affordable health care?

“I think that COVID-19 is going to open up a lot of disability issues that everyone is going to have to deal with, that people with disabilities have been dealing with forever,” Barker said.

Barker, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) at age 3 and has used a wheelchair since age 11, knows these issues well. With her many health care needs, she cannot afford any gap in her employment so as not to lose insurance coverage. And in the devastated work market left by the pandemic, she believes that as a visibly disabled woman, she is at a significant disadvantage in finding employment.

Ariella Barker.
Ariella Barker has used a wheelchair since age 11.

Barker has been involved in battles all her life. She grew up in rural North Carolina, with a single mom working multiple jobs and a grandmother who helped looked after her. She was diagnosed with SMA through a procedure known as an open muscle biopsy (which she endured at a free clinic without anesthesia). She wasn’t expected to live past the age of 5.

“Both my mom and I had no idea whether I was going to live only a couple more years or whatever, but once I kind of reached the age where I realized I was probably going to stop walking, but I wasn’t going to die anytime soon, I had dreams and life went on,” Barker said.

Barker was the first person with a disability to be integrated into her public-school system. Her grades qualified her for major scholarships, allowing her to go to college and eventually gain her law degree.

Following law school, she went to work for the City of New York. She was motivated by the idea of public service and of the image of the crusading people’s advocate she had watched in the television show “Law and Order” as a child.

She was also conscious of the fact that her debts and her disability kept her from having the full array of choices available to more privileged classmates. The public sector had both protections against discrimination and good pay.

She converted to Judaism, her interest in the religion piqued by the “infinite kindness” displayed by one of her professors, who was also an Orthodox rabbi. She moved to Israel for a time too, fulfilling a long-held dream of living abroad, but returned after life-threatening health issues made her continued stay impossible. Difficult battles with debilitating illnesses and health insurance companies followed.

For now, Barker is setting aside her plan to enter the public interest–strategic communication field and will return to the courtroom. She says the enriching year she spent at the Kennedy School will enhance her work.

“I think that I’ll be able to use a lot of the tools that I’ve learned here at the Kennedy School, to bring it back to New York City’s administration, not just in litigation, but the in-between work, where litigation meets policy agenda setting,” Barker said.