Access Denied: Brigid McGuire vs. the University of Wisconsin–Madison

By Emma Wathen

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The three-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2021, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

An aged Wisconsin State Journal newspaper clipping showing an image of UW–Madison Law student Brigid McGuire using a power saw to cut off part of her desk to protest a need for greater classroom accessibility.
A newspaper clipping from the Wisconsin State Journal on Sept. 9, 1994 reads “A wheelchair-bound UW–Madison law student, Brigid McGuire, uses a power saw to cut off part of a desk to protest a need for greater classroom accessibility. McGuire may face disciplinary action, an administrator said Thursday. McGuire had a seat in front of the class, but McGuire told about 100 students in the civil procedure class that she had complained about the lack of classroom accessibility to law school officials earlier. The students sit in rows behind long desk tops that extend from one side of the room to the other. McGuire cut part of the end of one desk top away so she could fit her wheelchair in the front row. By cutting away part of the desk, McGuire was able to get about three feet closer to the center of the room. Many of the students applauded her action, but Law School Dean Daniel Bernstine contends the school is not in violation of provisions of the American Disability Act. He said a decision on any disciplinary action would be made within days. McGuire was a carpenter for 12 years but broke her back in an industrial accident.” –Associated Press

“I’d like to take my place among you as your classmate,” UW law student Brigid McGuire announced to her civil procedure class on September 7, 1994, before revving up her circular power saw and cutting off a portion of her desk to make room for her motorized wheelchair. Amid applause, she added, “My hope for this action today is for this law school to get a carpenter in here and do the right thing.”[1]

Her act of protest, though inspired by the seating arrangements, was the culmination of months of struggles involving campus accessibility. During the spring semester of her first year, she accumulated nine parking tickets and missed several classes because she could not find a parking space close enough to the Law Building on Bascom Hill. “I simply do not have the stamina to get from a distant spot that involves maneuvering up or down the hill,” McGuire explained.[2] “The dean [Assistant Dean Robert Correales] said I should have considered the geography before I came here.”[3]

McGuire was not the first student to hear that response. Truman J. Karabis recalled that when he started at UW–Madison in 1967, at a time when only two curb cuts were built into academic buildings to allow access for wheelchair-users like him, “The general reaction I got from admissions people was, ‘It’s your problem, not ours.’ They suggested I go to a flat-campus school.”[4] Defending the general inaccessibility of student housing in 1975, Director of Housing Larry Halle suggested, “There is probably not a large number of handicapped with college interest.”[5]

The testimonies of UW students with physical disabilities do not reveal a lack of interest but a lack of access. After learning that equipment used in a required cartography class was located on an inaccessible floor in Science Hall, UW student Marcia Carlson submitted a proposal titled “Access Accessibility” in 1988 and received the university’s first Leadership Trust award, along with a $2,000 budget to conduct an accessibility study of approximately 200 buildings on campus.[6] “Campus accessibility is worse than anticipated. My researchers and I found only about 25% of the buildings and 10% of the rest rooms were accessible,” she reported.[7] Even though university officials had long expressed receptivity to making campus more accessible, many of the same accessibility problems pointed out by students in the early 1970s were reiterated by Carlson in the late 1980s—and even faculty members who were sympathetic to the struggles of students with disabilities couldn’t produce satisfactory solutions. “Relocating us separates us from the rest of the class,” Carlson said, referring to the university’s policy of offering alternative instruction sites for students with disabilities. “We miss out on the give-and-take of classroom discussion.”[8]

McGuire, too, felt isolated by this policy. When she told Correales that she did not want to watch videotaped classes at home because she “needed the friendship and support of others in the law school,” he replied that she was “hanging out with the wrong group of people.” Correales, she said, “referred to these conversations as ‘pep talks’ but I left them feeling upset and demoralized.”[9]

In a letter that detailed the “history of accommodations” the law school had provided her, Correales vehemently disagreed with her assessment of his character. “You told your classmates that your actions were necessary because of my refusal to comply with your numerous requests to modify the classrooms in the law school. That, in fact, is a request that you have never made to me and is an issue that was brought up only in passing in our conversation last Thursday.”[10] What he failed to understand was that the inaccessible desk, far from being an isolated incident mentioned in passing, was the tipping point in an unending parade of frustrations, an emblematic obstacle that McGuire, as a former carpenter, could safely and effectively use to express herself.

The two-year renovation project that began in October 1994 intensified the conflict between McGuire and the university after the construction barred her from parking on the grass. On December 5, 1994, she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct when she tried to prevent her car from being towed. “The instructor was right in the middle of talking about the final when a student came into class and told me, ‘They are towing your car away,’” McGuire said. “When I got outside, my car with my dog inside was halfway up on a Schmitz Auto flat-bed truck.”[11] Six police officers pulled her off the truck and shoved her into a wheelchair-inaccessible police van. The following day, she was admitted to Meriter Hospital for injuries sustained during her arrest.[12] As of February 1995, she had spent five of the last nine weeks in the hospital recovering from those injuries.[13]

Ultimately, the Office of Civil Rights concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to support a conclusion that the University discriminated against the complainant on the basis of her disability.”[14] It is clear, from the McBurney Disability Resource Center records in the UW Archives, that McGuire, like many activists before her, did not follow procedure to the letter when advocating for change. It is also clear, however, that she spent countless hours navigating systems that were supposed to help students with disabilities and running into barriers, both physical and bureaucratic. Her unwillingness to compromise may have seemed “antagonistic” to the university, but through the accumulation of careless mistakes, insensitive comments, and institutional obstacles, the university proved undeniably antagonistic to her and to thousands of other people with disabilities, both visible and invisible, who have studied and worked at UW–Madison over the years.[15]

 Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us.

[1] Nicole Miller and Kimberly Tucker, “McGuire seeks to chop away bias,” The Daily Cardinal, September 8, 1994, 1, UW Archives; Jeremy Kamps, “Disabled student demands equal access,” The Badger Herald, September 8, 1994, 1, UW Archives.

[2] Brigid McGuire, “Discrimination Complaint,” October 6, 1994, McBurney Disability Resource Center Records (1965–2009), 2005/146 40A9, Box 11, Folder 3: McGuire, B. Supp. Notes, UW Archives, 3.

[3] Nicole Miller and Kimberly Tucker, “McGuire seeks to chop away bias,” The Daily Cardinal, September 8, 1994, 1, UW Archives.

[4] Karl S. Gutknecht and Tom Menzel, “No Longer is UW Mt. Everest for the Physically Handicapped,” The Capital Times, March 10, 1972, 35, UW Archives.

[5] Shelagh Kealy, “Handicapped on uphill climb,’” The Daily Cardinal, January 15, 1975, 4, UW Archives.

[6] Jodie Tabak, “Study looks at handicapped availability,” The Badger Herald, January 1, 1989, 1–2, UW Archives; Tracy Dingmann, “She aims for accessibility,” The Capital Times, May 28, 1988, 21, UW Archives.

[7] Marcia Carlson to Donna Shalala and Mary Rouse, memoranda, January 24, 1989, McBurney Disability Resource Center Records (1965–2009), 2005/146 40A9, Box 4, Folder 27: Accessibility Projects 7/1/88–6/30/89, UW Archives.

[8] Tracy Dingmann, “She aims for accessibility,” The Capital Times, May 28, 1988, 21, UW Archives.

[9] Brigid McGuire, “Discrimination Complaint,” October 6, 1994, McBurney Disability Resource Center Records (1965–2009), 2005/146 40A9, Box 11, Folder 3: McGuire, B. Supp. Notes, UW Archives, 6, 4.

[10] Robert I. Correales to Brigid McGuire, letter, September 7, 1994, McBurney Disability Resource Center Records (1965–2009), 2005/146 40A9, Box 11, Folder 4: Brigid McGuire/Law School, UW Archives.

[11] J. Bradshaw-Rouse, “Renewed controversy for McGuire,” The Daily Cardinal, December 6, 1994, 1, UW Archives.

[12] Ingrid Berg, “McGuire’s quest for access leads to injury,” The Daily Cardinal, January 1995, A2, UW Archives.

[13] Jeremy Kamps, “UW law student and administration grapple over solution to access controversy,” The Badger Herald, February 20, 1995, 1, UW Archives.

[14] Mary Frances O’Shea to David Ward, letter, May 19, 1995, McBurney Disability Resource Center Records (1965–2009), 2005/146 40A9, Box 11, Folder 4: Brigid McGuire/Law School, UW Archives.

[15] Casey A. Nagy, “Brigid McGuire v. University of Wisconsin–Madison Board of Regents: Answer and Motion to Dismiss or Restrict Claims,” February 6, 1995, McBurney Disability Resource Center Records (1965–2009), 2005/146 40A9, Box 11, Folder 3: McGuire, B. Supp. Notes, UW Archives, 19.