October 2019

Remembering The Ad Hoc Committee for Handicapped Access (AHCHA): Against Erasure of Disability History At the University Of Chicago

The irony of placing a reminder of disability history in a stairwell does not escape me nor does it surprise me.

by Steph Ban

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.[1]

The front of a black, narrow chair lift. Photo taken by author

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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.

Ellis and three other members present a sign satirically mocking “The Hanna Gray Distinguished Service Chair(lift) Endowed by William Cannon.” Photo copyright The Chicago Maroon, used with permission.

In the spring of 2014, during my first year of college at the University of Chicago, I took a seminar aimed at prospective history majors. The final assignment was an original research paper using archival material. I was beginning to embrace a disability identity and I wanted to know more about the disabled people who had come before me, especially since the librarians and archivists I sought out, while sympathetic, couldn’t provide much information about disability history. After weeks of coming up empty, I decided to keyword search “disability” in the University photo archive. There I found the story that I would research for the next three years, eventually turning it into part of my Bachelor’s thesis.

Despite the AHCHA’s valiant effort, the outcome of their activism was not ideal. Ellis left school due to health issues after the end of the spring 1983 term, never to return. An elevator was not installed until sometime after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, perhaps as late as the late 1990s, according to Eileen Libby, former SSA librarian.[4] Despite this lack of closure, I felt proud that I had uncovered this crucial moment of the University of Chicago’s disability history and I hope that the many librarians, administrators, and students I shared my work with benefited from it. I remember approaching the president of the disabled student group where I was vice president, and feeling so overjoyed to tell him, “We’re not the first. There were other people fighting for access more than thirty years before us.”

I recently learned that the University planned to destroy a mural painted in 1984 by Astrid Fuller that depicts key moments in SSA history in favor of honoring the Bauhaus movement and SSA architect Mies van der Rohe. According to a University statement quoted in the Hyde Park Herald, “One of the central tenets of the Bauhaus is that artistic ornament should never be applied over any surface.” Among the moments depicted in the mural are its founding of the SSA by women (an extreme rarity in 1924), antiwar protests, and the civil rights movement. Looking closely at the shirt of one person, one can see a button with the International Symbol of Access which reads “Barrier Free U of C.” This is the only public reference, to my knowledge, to the AHCHA’s protest. I am heartbroken at the reduction of all of this rich history to “artistic ornament.”

Picture of the full mural. Copyright The Hyde Park Herald. Used with permission.
Close up of the part of the mural depicting the button. Used with photographer’s permission.

I didn’t know about the mural. Because it was in a stairwell on the west wide of the SSA and I am a wheelchair user who always entered through the east side accessible entrance, I don’t know that I ever could have seen it for myself. The borders of a vital piece of my legacy were drawn sharply to exclude me and others who don’t use stairs.

The irony of placing a reminder of disability history in a stairwell does not escape me nor does it surprise me. No one told me the mural existed, most likely because they didn’t know. The marginalization of disability history on campus is a consistent pattern, evident not only in the placement and destruction of the mural, but also in the widespread ignorance about Ellis and the AHCHA prior to my research, the absence of disability in the University’s diversity and inclusion timeline, and the fact that I faced many of the same physical barriers on campus that Ellis did thirty years before me. I’ve been stuck in elevators and unable to fit into small lifts. I regularly had to press the University to move classes from physically inaccessible buildings to one of the few accessible ones.

In her piece, “Institutional as Usual,” Sara Ahmed reflects critically on the fraught nature of “diversity work” and what it means to occupy a space not intended for you. She aptly compares institutions to pieces of clothing, taking on the shape of their most frequent inhabitants and subsequently becoming less comfortable to anyone who doesn’t fit the pre-established mold. Ellis did not fit the University of Chicago’s ideal of the typical student, and by all accounts, he and his allies couldn’t reform the physical environment quickly enough for him to fit comfortably. However, the mural was a small nod to their efforts. It was also, briefly, a sign to me that the the AHCHA’s activism may have loosened a few seams, and, symbolically if not in practice, given me and other disabled students evidence that the University also belonged to us.

I learned that the mural had been destroyed a few days after I learned of its existence. I am grieving and I am angry. Although I never personally saw it, the mural felt to me like a symbol of a group of brave and hopeful people whom I had spent years researching. A piece of their activism had been preserved for posterity and now it’s gone. One small sign that disabled students like me have a history is gone for good. The irony in the fact that a mural depicting key moments of social justice has been replaced to honor a movement whose founders resisted fascism and designed affordable housing adds another layer to what I see as an injustice.

Mies van der Rohe is a renowned architect who made a prominent imprint on Chicago’s urban landscape. I am enraged by the decision to destroy a unique symbol of University disability and other history, painted by an independent artist and SSA alum, simply to give van der Rohe another proverbial nod. When I interviewed Eileen Libby, she remembered seeing photographs of the opening ceremony for the SSA in which Van der Rohe was on crutches. Libby speculated that someone “must have carried him into the building.”[5] In this particularly ironic story, van der Rohe was kept from fully accessing his own creation because it failed to account for physical disability (temporary or permanent) within its borders.

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.

Further Reading

[1] Brian Quail (classmate of Jeff Ellis) interviewed via FaceTime by author, November 21, 2017.

[2] Kevin Rovens, “Handicapped SSA Grad Protests.” The Chicago Maroon, April 20, 1983.

[3] SSA Protest Photos, April 1983, School of Social Service Administration, Records, Addenda, Box 219, Unnumbered Folder, “Access Committee 1977-1983,” Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[4] Eileen Libby (former SSA librarian), interviewed by author in person June 1, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Eileen Libby interview.

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