Remembering The Ad Hoc Committee for Handicapped Access (AHCHA): Against Erasure of Disability History At the University Of ChicagoRoundup
tags: University of Chicago, disability studies, disability history
Stephanie (Steph) Ban is an independent scholar of U.S. disability history. She holds a B.A. in history with a minor in human rights from the University of Chicago, and has presented at several conferences. Her research interests include the intersection of disability and higher education, the history of disability rights activism, and disability’s role in historical memory. She is also a disability rights activist, with a particular focus on cross-disability inclusion and alternatives to mainstream direct action in organizing.
In 1983, first year social work student and wheelchair user Jeff Ellis, along with a group of about ten allied fellow students, picketed outside of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA). The primary and most visible catalyst for the protest was a cramped lift that the administration installed sometime between late fall 1982 and early spring 1983. While intended to provide Ellis access to classrooms and faculty offices on the SSA’s upper floors, the lift was too small. Becoming trapped in the lift was a frequent occurrence, and Brian Quail, a classmate of Ellis, remembered that Ellis was once trapped for several hours.
After multiple meetings with administrators resulted in failed promises for access improvements, Ellis and a group of classmates formed the Ad Hoc Committee for Handicapped Access (AHCHA) in the spring of 1983. The AHCHA’s immediate goal was to persuade administrators to install a larger elevator in place of the small lift, but in a greater sense, they saw themselves as working to improve the overall physical accessibility of SSA. The largest of their protests took place in April, when the AHCHA picketed outside the SSA building. Several student protest signs targeted the SSA specifically, such as one that read “SSA: No Handicapped Need Apply.” Others expanded the call for physical accessibility to the entire university, for example, “U of C Violates Civil Rights of Disabled.” With these signs, the AHCHA placed Ellis as being part of a disabled community, both within and beyond the borders of SSA, and as capable of making a rights claim based on that belonging.
In addition to protesting outside the SSA, the AHCHA circulated petitions to relevant University administrators and even to the National Association of Social Workers. In one photograph from May 1983, Ellis and three other AHCHA members displayed a handmade sign humorously taking aim at the perceived inaction of both Vice President of Business and Finance William Cannon and University President Hanna Gray. Ellis and another member wore buttons with the International Symbol of Access.
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