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Remembering the Days — Visible and Invisible: Students with disabilities

Remembering the Days - episode 73

As a blind student, John Eldred Swearingen had to make a case for admission to Carolina in 1895. The university went on to become a pioneer in accommodating students with major physical disabilities and continues to provide opportunities for students with disabilities both visible and invisible. 


John was 13 when he got a shotgun for his birthday, a traditional gift for a teenage boy in rural South Carolina. Just a few days later, he was out hunting, proudly carrying his new shotgun, when he tripped over a log. The gun barrel flipped back toward his face, the gun accidentally discharged — and John was permanently blinded.

Accidents like that are traumatic and life-altering. Perhaps doubly so for John Swearingen whose injury occurred in 1888 when accommodations for those with disabilities were few and far between.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re remembering John Eldred Swearingen, who had an unlikely tale of success, both as the first blind student at Carolina and later in professional life. We’ll also remember another alumnus who overcame similar tragedy and forged similar success after graduating from USC in the 1960s. Finally, we’ll consider how the university has evolved to provide opportunity for everyone with disabilities, both visible and invisible.

First, let’s go back to those dark days after John Swearingen’s accident. After he had recovered from the injury that took away his eyesight, John enrolled at Cedar Springs School for the Blind and Deaf in Spartanburg, S.C. He completed his scholastic studies there in exemplary fashion and applied for admission in the early 1890s to South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s university.

But his application for admission was rejected. John Swearingen was blind after all. Blind people rarely went to college back then. Why would South Carolina College, which had never enrolled anyone without eyesight, make an exception for him?

John met personally with the college’s trustees to appeal his rejection. And they saw his earnestness, his enthusiasm for learning, and they granted him provisional acceptance. He would have to be personally and financially responsible for any assistance he might need to accommodate his lack of eyesight. And, if college life proved to be too much for him, it was understood that John would be immediately dismissed from Carolina.

He started his freshman year in 1895 and by 1899, his senior year, John Swearingen was serving on the editorial board of the Garnet & Black, the new student yearbook. By the time he graduated that spring, he had set records for academic excellence that would remain unbroken for decades. It was said that he recognized the voice of every faculty member and every classmate, and his ability to recall details was nothing short of phenomenal.

Swearingen went back to Cedar Springs School to teach and became known as one of the institution’s best young faculty members, diligent, conscientious and, with his own disability, especially empathetic to his students.

But Swearingen wanted to do more, not just for students at Cedar Springs, but for all students in South Carolina. Especially those who were being left behind like students who attended schools in textile mill villages and African American students. Both received comparably little financial support from the state.

Swearingen campaigned to get elected as the state superintendent of education and he won. He would serve in that capacity from 1907 to 1922 and succeeded in getting state public schools accredited and getting more funding for all students, including those who were marginalized in the Jim Crow, separate-but-equal culture of South Carolina back then.

Swearingen’s legacy doesn’t end there. He had a son, John Eldred Swearingen Jr., who graduated from USC in 1938 and went on to become chairman of Standard Oil. USC’s Swearingen Engineering Center is named in his honor.

Terry Lee was born nearly 70 years after John Swearingen, and he, too, was 13 years old when he was injured in a hunting accident. The bullet severed his spinal cord, and Terry was paralyzed from the waist down.

His parents encouraged him to persevere, and he did. He graduated from Brookland Cayce High School and applied to the University of South Carolina for admission. No special appeal was needed for Terry to be admitted. Still, this was the early 1960s, long before curb cuts and automatic door openers and other accommodations for those in wheelchairs. Life on the USC campus for someone in a wheelchair was not easy, but Terry found a way — he lived on the ground floor of one of the Honeycombs — and graduated in 1966 with a degree in business and finance, becoming one of the first paraplegics to earn a degree from Carolina.

He moved to Atlanta and worked for a large real estate firm and, in his spare time, he trained to become a world-class wheelchair sprinter, swimmer and medal winner in the National Wheelchair Games. He won so many medals, in fact, that he gave most of them away while visiting children’s hospitals around the country, encouraging kids not to give up.

At the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, there’s a bronze statue of Terry Lee mounted near the main entrance. The statue depicts him in his wheelchair, about to hurl a javelin, one of the pentathlon events in which he excelled. It’s a vivid reminder to every patient at the rehabilitation center that "disabled" does not mean "unable."

Karen Pettus directed USC’s Office of Student Disability Services for many years and remains active in that realm in higher education. She says USC was one of the pioneers in the 1970s when it opened a wing of the Woodrow College dormitory exclusively for students with major physical disabilities.

Karen Pettus: “There were very, very few colleges and universities that even entertained having someone with a disability in their housing, living on campus. And for many of these students, most of them had head and spinal cord injuries. Some of them were football players. Some of them were car accidents. To the best of my knowledge, we were the only institution in the state that had that type of support for students.”

Karen says campus life was not easy for those students who were enrolled in the program.

Karen Pettus “I became close to a lot of the students in that program. And they would talk about like sitting outside the Russell House and how a lot of students were uncomfortable kind of talking to them and maybe didn't know what to say.

“And you could sit there and literally watch people cross the street to avoid having to interact with the students. And then once they got past them, cross the street and then keep going on their way. So it was an opportunity in many ways, but it also was difficult, I think, sometimes as well to be around a group of people and in a community that didn't always understand your needs and didn't always, wasn't always thoughtful of how they treated you.”

The external funding for that program, which provided nursing care and assistance for the students, slowly evaporated in the 1990s. It would be some time before the online learning options began to make college more accessible for everyone, including students with physical disabilities.

Sonia Badesha is the current director of Student Disability Services at USC. She says the vast majority of disabilities that students bring to campus these days are invisible.

Sonia Badesha: “It's the hidden disabilities that you can't see. We have a lot of them. Our mental health disabilities is the big umbrella. So it's anxiety, it's depression, it's bipolar, it's schizophrenia. With those, you can’t see that person, even some of our health conditions, depending on where you are with that. If I have diabetes, you don't know that I have diabetes, or if I had cancer and I was on the uptake of my chemo treatment, you don't know that I have that, but I still need accommodations in place. I still need some leniency, some flexibility.

“We have a small number of students with physical impairments, a small number with visual impairments and hearing impairments as well, because we cover all of those, too. But the majority of the students are all hidden disabilities, which makes it a little bit more difficult and challenging at times to kind of put accommodations in place.”

Students with learning disabilities and mental health issues were not exactly welcomed on college campuses years ago, but the tide began to turn about 25 years ago, both at Carolina and at other universities around the country. Still, Sonia says there is an ongoing effort to educate everyone about the need for accommodation.

Sonia Badesha: “But that's where it gets a little complicated sometimes when you tend to look at a person like, ‘I don't see anything wrong with you,’ which that language itself is not very appropriate, but it's hard to kind of put that in perspective when it's very easy. So if you have a cold, if you tell me you're sick, I get it. You're sick. I understand what being sick is like. So take the day, rest, don't do your homework, whatever it is.

“But to say, ‘Hey, I have ADHD, I need an extension.’ Well, are you being lazy? Did you not start ahead of time? If you know this, why aren't you preparing? That's not how that works necessarily.

“But we've got some really good faculty. I will say there's not a single department on this campus who I don't work with in some capacity or who has crossed paths with me that they understand, like, ‘OK, we're here and I'm not the expert, you are. How do we help the student? What do we need to do?’ And again, it's not giving the student a pass. It's that equal access. What can we do to kind of level the playing field? And if it's you’re a slow reader, doesn't mean you're not capable of getting the correct answer. You just might need a little extra time.”

So, Carolina enrolled John Swearingen, its first blind student in 1895, and went on to become one of the pioneers in enrolling students with major physical disabilities in the 1960s. And today, it has continued to be an accessible institution of higher learning for everyone with disabilities, visible and invisible.

There’s one more program I should mention that demonstrates USC’s support for all students. It’s called CarolinaLIFE, a non-degree, residential certificate program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. CarolinaLIFE provides training, mentoring and support along with opportunities to learn independence that comes with living on campus.

It started about 15 years ago, and more than a hundred students have graduated from the program, many of them now working in more fulfilling careers than they might have had without CarolinaLIFE.  

Well, that’s all for this episode. On the next Remembering the Days, just in time for the start of the new season, we’re going to look back at the many places where the Gamecock men’s and women’s basketball teams have competed. It’s a fun timeline that began in 1908 on a basketball court you might never have heard of.

That’s next time on Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.