Manushri Desai leaves USC Price with an arsenal of experience advocating for disability rights
By Eric Ruble
Before Manushri Desai even arrived at USC, she was making waves as an advocate.
The summer before the Las Vegas native arrived in Los Angeles for her freshman year, she co-authored a policy brief that was used in a case before the Supreme Court of India. Her brief, which she wrote while visiting the Blind People’s Association in Gujarat, India, helped a young Indian national become the first minor with visual impairment to be granted access to medical education in India.
Desai was visiting the BPA because she was family friends with its executive director, who informed her of the Supreme Court case.
While at BPA, she went through a simulation that helped her understand the difficulties of navigating the world while blind. She also met people with visual impairment, including a young boy who excitedly read to her about Disneyland from a braille book.
“I began to recognize that the BPA created a space where disability identity could be cultivated, a safe space where people could gather and find community. This reminded me that a shift to an inclusive society, while difficult to achieve, was not impossible,” Desai said.
She worked with her friend to write the policy brief in less than 48 hours. Their report showed examples from around the world of students with visual impairment being accepted into medical education programs – and it helped change law in India. “[It] really opened my eyes to writing and public policy as a tool for advocacy,” Desai said. “That got me really inspired and engaged in what public policy had to offer.”
Nearly four years later, Desai is graduating from USC Price with her bachelor of science in public policy.
Desai arrived at USC as a human biology major in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She says her work in India changed her perspective, and she switched her major.
“It was just a chilling and thrilling experience,” Desai said. “That got me very excited about policy and law, especially the untapped potential that the disability sector has.”
In March 2022, Desai presented before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on behalf of Voice of Specially Abled People, an international advocacy organization she has worked for since her freshman year at USC.
Desai spoke to the convention about the importance of women’s rights within the larger conversation about disability rights.
“There’s a disability angle to almost any progressive issue that affects our day-to-day lives,” she said. “Being a representative of an organization that introduces that angle to a conversation where your perspective might not readily be present has been a very rewarding experience.”
Desai’s presentations to the U.N. were just one facet of her work while a USC Price student. During the summer of 2021, she interned at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy in Washington, D.C. Earlier this semester, she delivered a TED Talk at TEDxUSC about the disability rights movement.
“For as long as I remember, I’ve been hopeful to share my belief that ‘disability rights should be everyone’s concern’ with anyone I could,” Desai said. “With the incredible support of Price, my professors, mentors and colleagues, I was able to fulfil what once was a distant aspiration.”
Desai believes being the best advocate possible will require expertise in both law and public health, so she is planning to earn a JD/MPH.
“I’ve always really appreciated the interdisciplinary approach to my studies,” she said. “Better understanding the medical model of disability through a health care perspective can make me a more informed individual to approach the legal needs or the policy needs of this population.”
At USC Price, Desai says she was consistently impressed by her courses’ relevance to real issues.
“What I was doing in class was seamlessly translated into the things that I was seeing in the outside world,” she said.
Some people spend decades searching for their passion and a way to make a mark on the world. Luckily for Desai, she already knows how she wants to do.
“I think I’ve been so blessed and grateful to feel so passionately about an issue,” she said.
She believes most people – including politicians – believe in making the world easier to navigate for people with disabilities. But there is a gap between well-meaning policymakers and the people their decisions impact.
“As long as that gap is not bridged, we’re not going to have employers that recognize the unique challenges persons with disabilities or mental challenges face,” she said.
Desai is determined to be part of that bridge.