'No body or mind left behind': The 32-hour fight for accessibility at UNC
Thursday, 7:58 p.m.
A banner is flung out from the windows of the Campus Y building.
"No body or mind left behind," it reads.
Megan Murphy and Laura Saavedra Forero, co-presidents of the Campus Y, had arrived at the top of the steps of South Building shortly before. They were bonded together with a chain, chicken wire, a PVC pipe and duct tape.
South Building hosts the office of many administrative positions at UNC, including the chancellor and the provost.
On Feb. 26, 2022, the elevator in Koury Residence Hall stopped working.
While this might just be an inconvenience for some students, it was far more important to Eleanor Bolton and Saavedra Forero. The two both use wheelchairs and the elevator's malfunction meant they could not leave the residence hall.
They were stuck there for 32 hours.
Now, a year later, Saavedra Forero has planned to sit with Murphy, connected to each other in front of the main door, from 8:00 p.m. on Thursday to 4:00 a.m. on Saturday — 32 hours — to advocate for a more accessible campus and University.
“We’re going to get in the way,” Murphy said.
The pair continued to sit together in protest, surrounded by friends and community members on the steps as the clock approached the end of the hour. The UNC women’s basketball game could be heard playing on Saavedra Forero’s phone in the background.
One hour down. Thirty-one to go.
Saavedra Forero and Murphy had written their “hopes, dreams and affirmations" for the campus and community at large on the PVC pipe encasing their arms, hidden under layers of duct tape.
“My people will get what they deserve."
“A better world is possible."
"The future is accessible.”
Saavedra Forero said that, while it took a lot of energy to organize the 32-hour protest, she believes taking direct action is special and that it forms community and creates relationships unlike anything else.
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“And so, at the end of the day, despite how long it takes and how stressful it can be — at least for me — direct action is really a way for me to channel all of my energy, and the complexity, and frustration and anger into something tangible and hope for change,” she said.
Murphy said that, as an organizer, she especially likes actions about accessibility that are physically disruptive.
“Because that small inconvenience... It’s really funny watching how angry people get at that inconvenience, and you see the hypocrisy in that,” she said.
She emphasized that during her time on the steps of the South Building, she wanted the administrators who work there to feel the same way disabled students on campus do.
“I want to make them uncomfortable,” she said. “And I want to do it in a way that makes them so angry, but also powerless — the way that I see my friends feel powerless,” she said.
As the hours wore on, a person could be seen in the window of the building behind the demonstrators. They walked down the stairs inside before disappearing through a side exit, not interacting with Murphy or Saavedra Forero.
The two were prepared for the interactions they would inevitably have, though, whether they be with police, community members or campus administrators.
Saavedra Forero said she and Murphy had been talking about the action since the Carolina for Every Body action they held on the last day of classes in spring 2022.
“I think what is most exhausting is that you really do have to sort of prepare for the worst,” Saavedra Forero said.
They prepared for everything.
Murphy said the Campus Y was serving as their base of operations, and other students had coordinated shifts for who would bring Murphy and Saavedra Forero meals, snacks and other needs.
Sarah Ferguson, a junior biology major who also uses a wheelchair, was one of those sitting with Saavedra Forero and Murphy for moral support — which she had committed to doing for the full 32 hours. She said she has also been stuck in buildings for multiple hours because of broken elevators and that it is one of the largest examples of inaccessibility on campus.
“It’s inhumane,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
UNC Media Relations said University Building Services is currently working to replace elevators in Carroll, Dey and Hamilton Halls, the Brinkhous-Bullitt Building, Lineberger Cancer Center and Morrison Residence Hall.
They also said the University is in the process of designing a feature on the Carolina Ready Safety App that sends a notification when campus elevators unexpectedly stop working. They plan to launch this feature before the upcoming fall semester.
Friday, 7:19 a.m.
Student Body President Taliajah “Teddy” Vann was one of the people who sat outside of South Building overnight.
She said she planned to sit there for the whole 32 hours, no matter how tired or uncomfortable she got.
“My thought process is that if Laura and Eleanor couldn’t leave, why would I leave these stairs?” Vann said.
She said that as the student body president, she wants to be there for every student she represents.
“I just think it would be ridiculous for us as an administration and me as a leader to constantly advocate to our students that they use their own voice and then, when they choose to do that, we not be here behind them 100 percent — every step of the way,” Vann said.
Administrators who work in South Building began to arrive around 7:30 a.m. on Friday, attempting to use the entrance of the building facing Polk Place.
While some walked up the steps to ask if they were able to get through the doors, others chose to use different entrances to the building.
“Well, the people leading our University are the ones asking us if they can come through this door,” Saavedra Forero said.
“I'm asking if I can come through this door,” Ferguson responded.
“This Action is Out of Desperation #RespectMyHumanity"
That's what a banner that multiple students held up in front of the steps read. They held it up with their hands and then sticks to keep it from toppling over in the wind.
Saavedra Forero said she and Murphy hope the hashtag gains traction and that their actions start a greater movement about accessibility in higher education — something they said is desperately necessary.
“Because this is definitely part of something bigger,” she said.
Underneath the hashtag was a timeline of Saavedra Forero and Bolton’s personal experiences with inaccessibility at the University. Included on the sign were several attempts they made to speak with administration and brainstorm solutions to the problem, which they said included promises administrators made and did not keep.
A sign with sticky notes and pens under it invited other students to add their own experiences of inaccessibility at the University.
The sign was complemented by “Respect My Humanity” drawn in bright blue and orange chalk on the bricks below.
Vann handed out blue ribbons with #RMH written on them in Sharpie, and put two in her own hair.
Saavedra Forero also said the banner was a physical way to show that students felt the action was an act of desperation because her extensive efforts to communicate with administrators about her experience and to make the University more accessible were not successful.
“Because every time I talked to an administrator, it was like talking to nobody,” she said.
More students gathered on the steps to sit with Saavedra Forero and Murphy.
Saavedra Forero's mother and sister also came to offer their support. Saavedra Forero and Murphy held umbrellas over themselves, as some protection from the glaring sunlight.
In addition to family and friends, the group had a different form of support in the person of Sunny Frothingham, a legal observer and student in her second year at the UNC School of Law.
She had been sitting at the top of the steps near Saavedra Forero and Murphy since 8 a.m.
Frothingham, a legal observing coordinator at the UNC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said the role of legal observers is to document police interactions with activists at direct action demonstrations to make sure that their rights to assemble and protest are not infringed upon.
“Legal observers can act as a sort of deterrent to that kind of infringement, but also can document incidents when they happen to provide support as needed,” she said.
Saavedra Forero and Murphy had a previously scheduled meeting with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz at 2:00 p.m. to talk about accessibility issues at the University.
Instead of meeting inside the building, he came outside and talked to them on the steps.
He said adjustments like new door handles and fixtures have been added to buildings across campus to increase accessibility. He also said he plans to work actively with his team to continue conversations regarding accessibility and that UNC is committed to the safety of the students.
“We are committed to it and so I want you to trust that we are going to keep this as a top priority,” Guskiewicz said.
He emphasized that his office is always open to students who want to talk with him about issues and that his team plans to respond to the list of immediate demands organizers sent to him.
Shortly after, Guskiewicz also had a meeting with the Student Advisory Committee to the Chancellor, of which Bolton is a member. Bolton said Guskiewicz stayed longer than the scheduled meeting time and the two of them talked about accessibility for about 45 minutes, which she described as a "really productive conversation."
“I am deeply grateful for the advocacy of our students on this critical issue. We will continue to make progress and work with students and key campus partners to further examine our processes, policies and procedures,” Guskiewicz said in an email statement.
Saavedra Forero said having people on the steps who also cared about accessibility, even those she does not know personally, during her and Murphy's meeting with the chancellor was helpful. It was something she had never experienced before.
“Regardless of what he said, I’m very proud of the way in which we were able to fully express how we felt, and I think a lot of that was because we could rely on our community and just know that they were there,” she said.
With the end of the 32 hours just minutes away, nine students surrounded Saavedra Forero and Murphy, all asleep on the steps. The warm weather of the last day had turned cold, and it had started to rain.
Despite the little sleep she had gotten and the emotional toll it had taken on her, Saavedra Forero said she was feeling a lot of gratitude because of the demonstration.
It had gone better than she expected.
“And though I'm not sure if I can fully trust, I did see sort of a shift in the manner and the way in which some of the administrative folks approached us,”she said. "I think this was a very visual way of telling them that we're not to be messed with, that we won't stop pressuring and that it's time for them to act.”
One by one, the students began to wake up and gather around Saavedra Forero and Murphy in preparation for them to unchain themselves.
One student brought a speaker and began to play music. The group danced and sang, surrounding the duo as Murphy unhooked herself from Saavedra Forero and the two removed their arms from the PVC pipe.
Bolton, who is the media liaison for the movement, said being a disabled student at the University can be an isolating experience — which is why she was especially grateful for the number of students who sat on the steps and showed their support.
“Being a disabled person at Carolina, you’re one of maybe five,” she said. “So, to be so alone in so many of your experiences, it’s really nice to have non-disabled people show up for us in meaningful ways.”
The group finished packing up their sleeping bags and backpacks and began to leave. The 32 hours were up. It was time to go home.
On their way out, though, one student tied a blue ribbon to the railing of the South Building, leaving a reminder of the cause they had fought for over the course of a day and a half.
The demonstration was over, but they knew there was still work to be done.
“We won’t let the movement die down anytime soon,” Saavedra Forero said.