For 15 years, Michelle Rigler has served as director of the Disability Resource Center, growing the volume of services and resources available to students with disabilities. When she first started, the center worked with 111 students. Today, the center provides resources to approximately 1,000 students at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
“We’ve tried to create a culture of access and we’ve been recognized for it,” Rigler says of the center’s journey.
Rigler’s passion for working alongside the disability community began in middle school, where she volunteered at a rehabilitation center. There, she met a peer with a brain injury, which shifted her perspective of disability.
“I don’t sit well with people being labeled as ‘other’. I won’t be able to stop doing this work until culture recognizes the gap and closes it.”
One glaring area of improvement Rigler sees is the lack of access on campus. She notes that people who don’t have a disability don’t think about access, since they don’t see through that lens. To help combat this problem, Rigler engages in local policy work.
“We are consistent advocates for our students. We want to help our students find their voice.”
When Rigler met Carol Westlake, the executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, she was moved by Westlake’s confidence and the coalition’s advocacy efforts. The Disability Resource Center decided to become a member of the coalition.
“Being a member – it’s a great support system for me and for the center. It helps me know what I’m talking about at the state level and I’m more educated by being involved as a member.”
Looking to the future, Rigler hopes to create a disability cultural center, where disability is celebrated and honored.
“We want to celebrate disability. We want to offer a place for students to come and feel safe and comfortable. We also want our students to make the cultural center their own.”
To learn more about the Disability Resource Center, visit https://www.utc.edu/disability-resource-center/index.php.
To learn how to become a member of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, visit https://www.tndisability.org/membership-and-board.