Nothing About Us Without Us: An Overview of Disability History at MTSU

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

Did you know that July is Disability Pride Month? The disability pride movement celebrates disabled people, challenges stereotypes and stigmas, and educates the public about the everyday issues and ableism that disabled people face in a largely inaccessible world. The origins of Disability Pride Month seem to date back to the first Disability Pride Day celebrated in Boston in 1990, which coincided with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ever since, disability pride parades and events have occurred throughout the United States, but have gained more traction in the past few years.

As part of the Gore Center’s continued effort to center marginalized voices in the archival record, I started searching for disability history in the University Archives. Unfortunately, very little has been written about disabled people at MTSU in official university publications, like Traditions of Excellence by Suma M. Clark (2011) and Middle Tennessee State University: A Centennial Legacy edited by Janice M. Leone (2011). There is one mention of disabled Blue Raiders in the pictorial history book, simply titled Middle Tennessee State University, published by Arcadia in 2001. On page 116, there is a photograph of a wheelchair user receiving her diploma from President Sam Ingram (pictured right). The caption discusses the hiring of John Harris to direct the Office of Disabled Student Services in 1985, but that’s it. I knew there was a much richer disabled history at our university. This blog post is only an overview of the research I have completed thus far.

The main primary sources I have been exploring are digitized Sidelines student newspapers, physical copies of the Midlander yearbooks, and the digitized archives for newspapers like the Tennessean, Daily News Journal, and the Nashville Banner available through Quick shout out to the all the archivists, librarians, and laborers who scanned and described these important resources, which made my research much easier!

Another crucial aspect to conducting my research was understanding how language used to describe disabled people has changed over time. If I want to find some of the earlier records, then I have to use search terms beyond “disabled” or “disability,” including terms that are now offensive. Overall, what the archival documents demonstrate is no surprise: disabled people were integral to every part of MTSU’s success and history.

One of the first stories that appears in Sidelines is about a student named Virginia “Joy” Bragg, who contracted polio at age ten and began using a wheelchair.[1] The university was founded as a school for training teachers, and Joy became one of the best teachers in middle Tennessee. She earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Middle Tennessee State Teachers College in the 1940s. While a student, she was active in organizations, like the Glee Club and the Student Christian Union, and she was Vice President of the Junior Class. Playing off her name, one yearbook described her as the “pride and joy” of campus. After college, she taught English and Drama in the Warren County School System for almost fifty years. Joy Bragg passed away in 2012 in McMinnville, where she left a much beloved legacy in education.

Top left: Junior Class officers. Joy is second from right. 1945 Midlander. Top right: Joy out on the town in Murfreesboro. 1946 Midlander. Bottom left: Joy seated in a chair. 1946 Midlander. Bottom right: Joy teaching at McMinnville High School. Nashville Banner, Jan. 29, 1949.

The Sidelines archive from the 1940s through the 1960s features a couple of profiles on disabled students like Joy Bragg, but a majority of the stories during this era discuss the latest trends and courses for teaching disabled children, which makes sense due to the university’s foundations and strong education department.

In the 1970s, as more disabled students enrolled at MTSU, Sidelines heavily increased their coverage of disability issues on campus. During this decade, the university was just starting to figure out better, more cohesive services for disabled students, including the addition of assistive technologies. In 1973, MTSU became the first school in the southeastern United States and the third in the country to install the MIT Braillemboss machine, which transcribed English text into braille and braille into English text.[2]

Computer that prints in braille installed in Learning Resources Center. Sidelines, July 30, 1975.

The Learning Resources Center became a central location for equipment that increased the accessibility of coursework for disabled students. Many of the first devices aided blind and visually impaired people. There was the Braillemboss, special radios that broadcast the reading of textbooks and newspapers, and a T.V. that magnified print.[3]

In September 1976, the Associate Dean of Students, Ivan Shewmake, announced that his office was finalizing a plan to make campus more accessible.[4] Several physically disabled students helped create the plan, including Clarence Rowland, a wheelchair user, who drew illustrations of various obstacles on campus to help nondisabled people understand the problems they deal with every day.

Similar to other marginalized communities, disabled students were the ones that had to propel the positive and equitable change at MTSU, particularly as an act of survival to fight for their needs. One student organization in particular became a great resource for disabled students. Sigma Delta Sigma (SDS), established in 1979, became a place for disabled students and their allies to socialize, bring awareness to disability issues on and off campus, and promote research on the disabled community. In its first year as an organization, SDS started Handicap Awareness Day (later it became Handicap Awareness Week) to bring visibility to disability issues and “how one can succeed in the face of those problems.”[5] This day of events included a wheelchair tour of campus to demonstrate the inaccessibility of the landscape. Some of the public figures that participated in the wheelchair tour included U.S. Rep. Al Gore, Jr. and MTSU President Sam Ingram. Another activity was the five-event wheelchair rodeo held between campus fraternities, sororities, and residence halls.

Sigma Delta Sigma student organization photo from the 1981 Midlander yearbook.

In the fall of 1979, SDS formed the Rolling Raiders, a wheelchair basketball team. They often played against fraternities and sororities, student government, other student organizations, cheerleaders, athletic teams, and sometimes community organizations like Murfreesboro Police. Often, revenue from the games went to funding Handicap Awareness Day/Week activities. Other sports that members of SDS participated in were baseball and football. There were some standout athletes in SDS, too. Most notably, there was Bart Dodson, who competed in five summer Paralympics between 1984 and 2000, won several gold medals and held multiple world records.

Top left: wheelchair baseball. 1981 Midlander. Bottom left: Bart Dodson training for the 1988 Paralympic Games. Sidelines, April 15, 1988. Right: Wheelchair basketball. 1980 Midlander.

In 1989, SDS started soliciting student, staff, and faculty for signatures in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on disability. At the time SDS and other disabled people on campus understood that passage of the ADA could monumentally improve academic and physical accessibility at MTSU. In November 1989, Sidelines reported that the SDS letter sent to Congress received little support from the MTSU community with only 52 signatures.[6] The group as well as John Harris, director of Handicapped Student Services, said that it spoke to the great amount of awareness still needed for disability issues. The ADA ultimately passed and went into effect on July 26, 1990.

Sigma Delta Sigma continued as an organization for a few more years and then eventually faded from the historical record. In 2002, James Goodman, disabled student and U.S. Army veteran, reactivated the dormant SDS, but this second round did not seem to last long as the Sidelines archives do not mention them after 2003. Nevertheless, Sigma Delta Sigma left an enduring legacy on our campus for disabled students, faculty, and staff, and made Middle Tennessee State University a more welcoming place for all.

The Tennessee Quad Crushers, a wheelchair rugby team, after winning the 1994 National Quad Rugby Championship. The team included MTSU senior Donny Sweeton and MTSU graduate Bart Dodson. Midlander Photo Collection.

There are many more stories to tell, but I will end my overview here. I continue to research these primary sources for important voices and changes from the 1940s to present day. I want to learn more about MTSU programs and institutions for disabled people, like the foundations for the current Disability and Access Center. They uploaded a fantastic oral history interview about their past on their YouTube channel. I also want to know more about campus life for disabled students as well as how disabled faculty and staff navigated their jobs at MTSU throughout the years. The Gore Center would love to conduct oral histories with and acquire historical artifacts from disabled alumni.

Disability history is American history and MTSU history. Disabled people have been an active part of this campus community since its founding in 1911, and they graduated to become essential members of society. Disabled people’s history intersects with so many other marginalized communities, and these experiences must be researched, learned in public schools, celebrated, and serve as lessons for how we can always push for more equitable lives for everyone.

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