During winter break, 2007, my sister Elizabeth (“Biz”) was diagnosed with osteosarcoma; a large cancerous tumor was wrapped around of the base of her spine. Surgery and recovery involved the removal of several vertebrae and half of her pelvis. One leg was amputated and her salvaged femur bone from that limb was used to reconnect her remaining leg to the base of her spine. Recovery took nearly two years and was threatened as cancer spread to her lungs. She eventually returned to BYU as a newly disabled student in a manual wheelchair. I helped her get to classes and cleaned her apartment. Her roommate was a graduate student in the math department with severe cystic fibrosis. They both landed in that apartment because it was one of the only wheelchair accessible places listed in BYU approved housing. Frankly, it wasn’t remotely accessible and they had no able-bodied roommates. The owners claimed accessibility because it was on the first floor and there was handicapped parking. I kept their place clean because neither could dishes or laundry. I drove my sister to and from campus since the only way up was via the south campus ramp by Brick Oven—impossible for a manual wheelchair. I don’t think all the buses were accessible at that time.
The campus parking situation was fine; you could park in any A spot with a handicapped placard. At one point, campus police ticketed our car for parking violations. Turns out a BYU student had taken a picture of her placard, forged it, and used it to park in no parking zones. BYU police voided the parking fines, but didn’t pursue the suspect.
It was difficult for my sister to come back to BYU as a newly disabled person. It’s a big campus, and she was pretty weak. Most professors understood that it was difficult to attend class and allowed her to participate via Skype when necessary. She didn’t have many friends—by the time she got back to BYU most of her friends had graduated. I was disappointed in her ward for not reaching out or trying to fellowship her. She had some interactions with the BYU accessibility center, but I don’t remember any big adjustments after meeting with them. She had requested a spot in their offices or a spot in the TA Offices at the KMBL where she could transfer to a softer chair for pain relief, but I don’t think the UAC ever came through. She did find friends in Salt Lake through adaptive sports, but BYU didn’t offer anything like that.
Frankly, BYU is not very accessible. I had mentioned the KMBL before. My sister had many classes and church in that building. The only place for truly accessible seating in the lecture hall is the back row. For classes, this was a pain because Biz was legally blind in one eye. For church, it was embarrassing that she sat alone on the back row. BYU shut down bus service by the WILK for a time, so the only place she could get dropped off was at the Marriott School of Business. From there, she rode the elevator to main campus and pushed herself to classes. The first time she visited the UAC, she got stuck in an elevator in the WILK; the facilities manager had to load her into the freight elevator so she could get to the accessibility office.
At one point, her Bishop made a very thoughtless, but hurtful comment: “Why do they put all the disabled students in our ward?” The answer is, as I said before, it was one of the only complexes advertised as accessible at the time. I also mentioned that my sister had to get out of her chair now and then. If she regularly spent more than two hours at a time in her chair, her skin would start to break down. She would scout out bathrooms on campus with nursing stations to unload. She felt uncomfortable taking up space intended for mothers. Much of BYU’s campus was built pre-ADA (1990), and my sister experienced that every day: stairs, steep ramps, split-level buildings, limited elevators, limited resting spots.
We graduated together and moved to Chicago where eventually she started a masters program in Disability Studies. She never finished, passing away June 2016. I know she’d have more to say. She loved BYU, and getting back there after surgery to graduate was a huge goal. Good luck on your article. I can suggest a couple things to accommodate people in wheelchairs—though if it’s been 8 years since we graduated so things might have changed.
1-BYU approved housing should have a more rigorous application process for landlords claiming wheelchair accessible housing including adapted appliances, wheelchair friendly desks, bathrooms and kitchens.
2- A dedicated shuttle service for students with disabilities, provided in full or in part by BYU.
3- A disability lounge of sorts where students can safely unload to get out of their wheelchairs.
4- A service that can contract out students to be personal care assistants for hire.