Alumna pioneered accessibility changes on campus

March 29, 2010

Alysa Rollock (left), vice president for ethics and compliance, presents the 2010 student Focus Award to (from left) Gary Byrkett, Jerry Arvin, Towana Pope and Mary Arvin, who were accepting the award on behalf of Sharon Arvin Byrkett. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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Editor's note: Five members of the Purdue community were honored March 2 with Focus Awards for their outstanding contributions to furthering the University's commitment to disability accessibility and diversity. This profile focuses on the alumna recipient, Sharon Arvin Byrkett.

As an advocate for disability accessibility, Sharon Arvin Byrkett influenced changes throughout Indiana, but her cause started on Purdue's West Lafayette campus.

Both Byrkett and her younger sister, Janie, were born with muscular dystrophy and used wheelchairs.

When Byrkett was ready to enroll in college, Purdue was not handicap-accessible to those with significant mobility disabilities.

Mary Arvin, Byrkett's mother, says, "Sharon never took no for an answer. She loved learning and school, and nothing was going to stop her."

Byrkett, her sister, and a group of friends who used wheelchairs pioneered a movement at Purdue to increase disability accessibility on campus.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibiting discrimination based on disability in programs supported by federal agencies, gave Byrkett and her friends the foundation to propose that these changes be made.

Ramps, curb cuts, new elevators, additional accessible seating and restrooms in athletic facilities, and increased numbers of handicap-accessible parking spots were just a few of the improvements on Byrkett's list.

Throughout the entire modification process, Byrkett was consulted about the effectiveness and usability of the changes.

Byrkett's enthusiasm for her cause left Purdue with lasting results that continue to serve not only those with mobility limitations, but everyone else on campus.

Left-handed desks are now available in classrooms, bicyclists can move easily from sidewalk to sidewalk without jumping curbs, and automatic doors can assist those with full hands.

At the state level, Byrkett served on the Governor's Council for People with Disabilities, chaired the Community Living Committee, served as chair for IndyGo's Mobility Advisory Committee, and was on the board for the Indiana Association for People in Supported Employment.

"She has done so many marvelous things," says Arvin. "She never quit and never gave up. Her faith and positivity went a long way."

Byrkett's positive attitude continued after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. She was in remission for five years, but the cancer returned. Byrkett died in October 2009.

This year, Byrkett was honored as the alumna recipient of the 10th annual Focus Award.

Byrkett's legacy lives on, but her impact at Purdue is often taken for granted.

"People on campus now don't know her,” Arvin says. “So she doesn't usually get credit for everything she accomplished.”