UTA students with disabilities story is told through exhibit

Meara Isenberg

Before the 1970s, K-12 grade schools and colleges had no legal obligation to admit or serve students with disabilities. In the early ‘60s, UT-Arlington students took it upon themselves to advocate for a more accessible campus.

The Building a Barrier-Free Campus exhibit, which started last Wednesday, highlights UT-Arlington’s path to becoming a model accessible campus for students with disabilities through quotes and images. The exhibit will be available to visit in the Perry-Castañeda Library until Oct. 23.

“They asked me to do this back in 2014, and I very willingly said, ‘Let me see what we can find,’” exhibit co-curator Sarah Rose said at an opening round table last Wednesday. “We found there was actually a whole lot more history. It was a lot of different people who had been pushing for basically the right to go to college, the right to be integrated.”

The exhibit chronicles the UTA students who founded a Handicap Students Association in 1968 and pressed UTA administration to make campus more accessible to disabled students. They invited UTA President Wendell Nedderman to navigate the campus in a wheelchair, giving him a new perspective on the challenges students faced.

The exhibit lauds individuals like Jim Hayes, who broke his neck in 1967 and went on to attend UTA and draft a 52-page proposal on how to make campus more accessible. Hayes also founded The Freewheelers basketball club at UTA for disabled students, advocating for them to have the same opportunities as their able-bodied classmates.

“These are the people that changed our lives, and I think if you don’t know your history, you don’t know where you’re heading,” said Chase Bearden, director of advocacy and community organizing for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

Current UT student body president Alejandrina Guzman, who uses an electric wheelchair, recognized the importance of a campus with resources for disabled students her freshman year when she got stuck in a building after a club meeting because the wheelchair accessible door would not work.

Since being involved in UT student government, Guzman has gotten disability accessible buttons installed on administrative doors in the registration office, Division of Diversity and Community Engagement office and in the undergraduate office. She said it’s the student’s voice that makes the greatest impact.

“If it’s a student, the student voice really matters,” Guzman said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. Keep on speaking out, and keep pushing back.”