In the 1950s, Floyd Michael McBurney enrolled in classes at the University of Wisconsin, just one year after a cervical spinal cord injury left him as a quadriplegic. Back then, the struggles disabled students faced were only exacerbated by lack of inclusion and accessible spaces. 

Nevertheless, McBurney completed his undergraduate degree at UW and went on to earn his law degree. He later became Dane County District Attorney in 1966 before sadly passing away shortly after taking office. 

In his memory, the McBurney Center was founded in 1977 by McBurney’s friend and fellow wheelchair user James Graaskamp, along with Dean of Students Paul Ginsberg and Assistant Dean Blair Mathews with the goal of making spaces more accessible for everyone. 

Life for disabled students is much different than it was in the 1950s and 60s when McBurney was at UW, though. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has since been enacted which gives legal ground for universities to make their campuses accessible. Yet UW students with disabilities still face challenges navigating the campus every day.  

Luckily, the McBurney Center still continues to help students with physical, cognitive and mental disabilities achieve the full UW experience through a network of programs across the campus. 

Cross-campus accommodations

According to their website, the McBurney Center works with students that have “physical, learning, hearing, vision, psychological, health and other disabilities substantially affecting a major life activity (e.g., walking, communicating, learning, seeing, breathing, reading, etc.).”

In the 2017-18 school year, UW had 2,220 students eligible for assistance from the McBurney Center.

According to McBurney’s website, there are three steps students need to take to apply for accommodations:

  1. Complete the McBurney student connect online application.
  2. Schedule and participate in a meeting with an access consultant. This can take place in-person, on the phone or via video conference.
  3. Gather and submit documentation of disability.

If a student does not have a formal diagnosis of their disability, the student can utilize other campus resources to get a comprehensive evaluation since McBurney does require a formal diagnosis for access to accommodations. These resources include University Health Services, the Psychology Research Training Clinic and Student Assessment Services.

McBurney’s Assistant Director Mari Magler said that the center works with students that have any type of disability. Last year, the center had more than 900 students that had mental health as their primary disability type.

“So we’re really focused on academics, but certainly we want students to have their whole experience here at UW-Madison to be an accessible one,” Magler said.

There is no one way to work with all students that have disabilities on campus, so McBurney works with each student individually to make sure their needs are met, Magler said.

McBurney also works with students for scheduling modifications, such as number of credits and the time of day they have class, Magler said. McBurney works with the buildings crews to make sure the correct furniture is accessible for students.

A large portion of accommodations take place regarding exams, Magler said. Students may have accommodations that include more time on exams or taking an exam in a smaller, less distracting room.

In addition to accessibility in classes, McBurney works with UW Housing to ensure students have the accommodations they need outside of class, Magler said. This relationship allows students to send a housing-related request directly to housing.

Some examples of housing-related accommodation requests include a room with a bathroom, a single room and air conditioning, Magler said. Students with specific food-related needs can also send their needs to UW Housing.

“Our relationship with housing is very much a partnership,” Magler said.

An accessible experience 

Communications director for Facilities Planning and Management at UW Steve Wagner said that when it comes to winter, the university tries its best to make sure accessible pedestrian routes are free of snow and ice as soon as possible. He said that grounds crews work around the clock to clear ice and snow.

UW has a list of published accessible pedestrian routes so both students and visitors can more easily navigate campus, Wagner said. UW also has a list of internal passageways between Van Vleck, Sterling and Chamberlain to help ease navigation on campus during the winter months.

“Our entire grounds staff and a lot of our custodians spend much of their time in the winter when there’s snow clearing [the] snow from campus sidewalks, campus roadways and around building entrances and ramps and things like that,” Wagner said.

Facilities Planning and Management works with students, faculty and visitors who need assistance when they come to campus, Wagner said. But, he added, each person has unique needs which means that they must contact the university directly for assistance.

When a visitor contacts their office for accessibility assistance, Wagner said they will ask where they plan on going so the best route can be planned for them. This includes where to park and how to navigate campus once parked.

“This is a very large campus and we do this for everybody who comes here, regardless of what their status is,” Wagner said. “We treat everyone equally and we think everyone should have equal access to all of our facilities.”

Wagner added that Facilities Planning and Management is always open to suggestions on how to better serve the campus, so anyone with concerns should contact the Facilities and Planning Management office.

In addition to the outdoor accommodations, the McBurney Center works to make sure students have access to facilities indoors as well.

“Furniture accommodations are some of the things we think about when looking at physical disabilities,” Magler said. “We can sometimes place specific furniture in classrooms.”

Many lecture halls at UW have fixed stadium-style seating, Magler said, which can be challenging for students with physical disabilities. If the seating style in a classroom is a barrier for a student, McBurney will work with the building to get a table and chairs in the lecture hall.

Legal obligations

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both public and private universities must provide equal access to students with disabilities. In addition, all universities that receive funding from the federal government must make all of their programs accessible to students with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

But what exactly does “equal access” mean? According to the ADA National Network, accomodations can be things like physical access to buildings, providing effective communication services — such as sign language interpreters or Braille — and providing testing accommodations.

UW’s ADA Coordinator Jaimee Gilford works to make sure that the university is following the accommodation requirements for all types of disabilities.

When it comes to the physical requirements buildings must follow, there is some variation depending on when the building was built, Gilford said. Some buildings are very old — for example, North Hall, which houses the political science department, was built in 1851.

“Some older buildings, and some portions of older buildings, are not alterable to ensure ADA accessibility,” Gilford said. “The law appreciates that in some cases, when the building would have to be changed so drastically or at such an unreasonable cost that it’s actually not feasible to make it accessible. In those situations, which are fairly rare … we either try to avoid programming in those areas or we have additional accessible programming areas.”

When it comes to newer buildings, accessibility is discussed in the design phase to ensure that students, faculty and visitors can navigate the building as easily as possible, Gilford said. Regardless of the year of construction of a building, UW tries to ensure that there is at least one entrance with an automatic door, accessible bathrooms and Braille signage in all university buildings, Gilford said.

If someone believes UW is in violation of the ADA, Gilford said they should reach out to her or McBurney. If the issue is outside of the Office of Compliance and McBurney’s purview, both offices would direct the complaint to the appropriate department.

Gilford said the Office of Compliance has dealt with complaints from community members. Recently, there was a concern that some of the handicap plates to open doors around campus were higher than what they should be, Gilford said.

Gilford said she connected the person with the facilities department that showed the university is compliant with the height of the door plates.

“Compliance with the ADA doesn’t happen with one person or even one office, that we are spread across the entire institution, intentionally, so we can ensure that there’s not an area that’s being neglected,” Gilford said.

Disability as a part of diversity 

Emily Giombi, a UW junior with a speech disability, said the campus is not the most physically accessible place because of hurdles like Bascom Hill and lots of stairs. As the Vice President of Promotions for the UW Office of Compliance Americans with Disabilities division, Giombi knows the challenges that students with physical disabilities face daily while navigating campus. But, in her experience, UW has been helpful when it comes to accommodating students with mental health and cognitive disabilities. 

Giombi uses the McBurney Center for a speech disability. For her accommodation, she does not give speeches and her participation does not count as part of her grade. Instead, she will do an alternative assignment to make up for that portion of her grade.

“My experience with McBurney has been pretty positive,” Giombi said. “They’re a great resource for people with disabilities on campus.”

At the beginning of the semester, Giombi talks to each of her professors and teaching assistants about her accommodations. She said almost all of her experiences have been positive.

Giombi said there was one instance in which she was penalized for not participating in discussion, but because of her accommodations she did not have to participate. She initially talked to her teaching assistant for the class, who told her to talk to the professor.

“I talked to the professor and I had to bring in somebody from McBurney to kind of argue on my behalf to this professor to get my grade changed,” Giombi said.

Giombi said she did end up getting the grade changed.

In terms of campus climate, Giombi said she wants students to know you cannot see every disability a student may have and you never know what someone else has going on in their life.

“Like with anything, just be courteous, be kind to other people because you never really know what might be going on,” Giombi said. “Being kind is something that goes a long way in the disability community.”

While Magler also believes the university does a pretty good job at accommodating students, she also said some areas of academics related to the disabled community could be improved. UW does not offer classes in American Sign Language and does not have a certificate or major in a disability studies research area.

Additionally, on a larger scale, Magler said the UW community does a great job initiating other conversations about diversity but sometimes the disabled community is not directly included.

Magler said she hopes that more conversations about disabilities will happen on campus to further reduce stigmas.

“[The McBurney Center] always tries to remind folks, and we’re not alone in this effort, but disability is part of diversity,” Magler said. “So we [should] think about disability as a social identity.”