Woman in wheelchair makes MU history during sorority recruitment

Thursday, November 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:01 p.m. CST, Friday, November 6, 2009
MU freshman Gabriella Garbero leaves Hawthorn Residence Hall for 9 a.m. class on Sept. 18.

COLUMBIA — With 1,299 other women at MU, Gabriella Garbero went through sorority recruitment in August. When it was over, she accepted a bid from Kappa Kappa Gamma.

With her pledge class, Garbero attended a retreat at Stoney Creek Inn. She eats lunch at the sorority house and participates in chapter socials, philanthropy and meetings.


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What sets Garbero apart is the way she gets around.

Born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, her weakened muscles require the use of a wheelchair during the day and special medical equipment at night to support her body.

Garbero, 18, also made a bit of history at MU. Panhellenic officials at MU believe she is the first woman in the university's history to participate fully in recruitment while using a wheelchair. 

To get inside MU's Greek houses, she brought a friend to set up ramps across any stairs she encountered. The friend also handled other accessibility needs but didn't accompany Garbero into any of the houses.

Lindsey Hoffman, vice president of public relations for MU's Panhellenic Council, said Garbero's decision to go through recruitment caused little stir on campus.

"Gabriella contacted us to say she’d be coming through," Hoffman said. "We made a few accommodations to make things easy for her, but she essentially took care of everything.”

The limited access for wheelchairs in the chapter houses didn’t slow Garbero down.

“I don’t think it’s right to be accusing," she said. "I know that handicap accessibility has not been on the forefront of people’s minds because, until now, it hasn’t been needed for any of the members.”

Optional ADA compliance

Although the law's purpose is to protect the rights of those with disabilities, Greek houses are considered off-campus, private property and thus do not have to comply with the provisions in the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Furthermore, Title III of the ADA excludes any entity that could be defined as a private club. Greek houses meet two of the requirements for private club status: Sororities and fraternities are highly selective in choosing their members, and the organizations have historically been private.

"Any responsibility for accessibility would belong to the property owners," said Lee Henson, who coordinates MU's compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

If an area is deemed public accommodation, its owner, lessee or operator must make the location accessible. Although Greek houses could arguably be considered places of public accommodation, Title III of the ADA makes at least two references that appear to exempt fraternities and sororities.

Sorority and fraternity houses are neither owned nor operated by the university, so university rules don't apply to Greektown zoning or building. If the university were to own or operate a Greek chapter house, it would be regarded as an educational facility and therefore need to comply with ADA regulations. 

Although the Office of Greek Life exercises influence over fraternity and sorority practices, helps to facilitate recruitment and provides housing for a significant number of students, it has not been designated as an MU program. 

Fitting into a community

Still, Garbero's sorority is doing whatever possible to accommodate her. She keeps two sets of ramps inside the sorority house to make entries and exits easier. One ramp leads into the house and the other provides access to the dining room.

Recently she met with the Kappa Kappa Gamma house board, which promised to replace her temporary ramps with permanent ones. Sorority members also said they are looking for additional opportunities to help.

“We will work with Panhellenic, our headquarters and anyone we can to discuss arrangements for Gabriella,” chapter President Adrienne Pedersen said.

Garbero said she finds it odd that others who use wheelchairs haven’t rushed before. Thousands of students with disabilities have attended the university over the years, and Barbara Hammer, the director of disability services at MU, said 511 students registered with the Office of Disability Services this semester. 

Garbero's best friend and roommate, Kristen Montgomery, who also needs a wheelchair, said she might be the next to rush recruitment now that the trail has been blazed.

Garbero will not, however, be able to move into the sorority house. The house, like many older residences, has accessibility issues, and she needs personal aides to assist her throughout the day.

No matter where she lives, Garbero has found a community of friends at a large university much the way she did on a smaller scale in high school in St. Louis. 

“One day I just got this feeling that this is what I was supposed to do,” she said. 

Yet, in the back of her mind, Garbero said she wasn't sure she'd get a bid.

"People said I’d be allowed to participate," she said, "but no one promised I’d get accepted in the end.”

Getting support, getting involved

Garbero credits her decision to join a sorority to her family, saying, “I was blessed to be raised in a family where I wasn’t limited just from being in a wheelchair.”

She said she isn’t used to feeling so included by a group of people. “I really feel like they’re my sisters,” she said. “When you’re handicapped, you feel so isolated. Instead of being bummed that I’m stuck at the bottom of the stairs, it's OK because my sisters make me feel comfortable. They’ve asked, ‘How can we help?’”

Pedersen said the women in Kappa Kappa Gamma were thrilled about Garbero pledging the sorority.

“We’re just so excited she took that opportunity," she said. "She has a lot of people supporting her. We wanted to make her experience at our house as normal as possible. We treated her just like any other girl going through."

Pedersen accounts for the chapter’s response as mutual respect, saying: “Gabriella will teach all of us a lot. The great thing is she wants to get involved.”

Currently, Garbero said she is just enjoying being a college freshman and becoming a part of the Greek community.

“I’m trying to take it all in day by day,” she said. “Right now I’m just trying to observe everything that’s going on. 

"I can start small with skits, and as for the future maybe I’ll become an officer in the sorority or something of great importance.”

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