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Abstract

This project examines the history of disabled students and disability rights activism at the University of Chicago after the passage of Section 504 but before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and contextualizes the protest within moments of activism at other universities like Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and within the broader disability rights movement. Using the lens of the 1983 protest staged by social work student Jeff Ellis and the Ad Hoc Committee on Handicapped Access, I argue that the access regulations outlined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were largely ignored by the University, demonstrating that access was mainly a concern of affected students and their allies, and that administrators thought of disability as an individual problem to resolve, rather than a facet of societal diversity. UChicago students used tactics like direct action, petitioning, and legal means to attempt to persuade administrators to install an adequate lift. The results of their efforts are uncertain. I argue that UChicago’s attitude toward access lagged behind that of public institutions such as UIC, but that it was on par with Northwestern’s, exposing greater reticence on the part of private universities to prioritize physical access. Private universities like UChicago and Northwestern have always been slower to act, revealing that private universities did not conceive of the “elite” and worthy student as disabled.

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