Attending Georgia State as a disabled student

Maddy Gunawan is pictured between two of her sorority sisters of Delta Zeta. Photo courtesy of Maddy Gunawan

Unless she made friends, she was dropping out of college.

That was the end-all for Maddy Gunawan, a second-year at Georgia State. In a wheelchair with 24/7 assistive care, it was hard for Gunawan to branch out at first until she decided to go through recruitment to join Greek life.

The three days of recruitment were “intense,” especially as this was the first weekend Gunawan had stayed on campus rather than gone home to her parents’ house. Gunawan left sorority recruitment as a member of her first-choice sorority, Delta Zeta.

“I think I was the first one to rush with a disability,” Gunawan said, reflecting on how Delta Zeta has learned to be more accommodating.

Fostering a community described by Gunawan as “home,” her friends at Delta Zeta have helped her in times when she needed it. Two of Gunawan’s aids were hired from; the rest are her friends from her sorority.

“Being around them has taught me to not be in my comfort zone as much,” Gunawan, who is an active member in Delta Zeta, filling leadership positions and planning events for her sorority sisters, said.

Currently living at Piedmont North Residence Hall, Gunawan spends three to four days a week spending time at the Delta Zeta house, making connections with those in the surrounding Greek houses as well.

Although Gunawan has faced the extra challenge of accessibility, she said that everyone has tried to be accommodating, her friends making sure that she can partake in every activity.

At first, her sorority sisters did not know how to act around Gunawan, but she then “initiated joking so that they would jump in.”

“They joke about funny stuff [now],” said Gunawan. “[like] okay we’re going to put Maddy in a corner and leave her there.” 

“Most people would be like, ‘Oh, my god, why did you say that to her? That’s so mean,’” Gunawan said. 

“They don’t try to tiptoe around her or anything,” Lillie Weeks, one of Gunawan’s aides, said. “I think a lot of people are really intimidated [at first] and don’t know what to do or how to react.”

Weeks, a previous Georgia State student only a couple of years Gunawan’s senior said that she was really intimidated because before she met her friends.

“I had mostly been interacting with her dad, who was very serious, and it is serious, but when I met her friends, and they were joking around, [so] I was like, ‘Oh,’” Weeks said. “I remember Maddy said to me, ‘It’s not that deep.’”

With an optimistic attitude, Gunawan has rolled with the punches. Falling out of her chair while entering the pregame to her sorority’s formal at a fraternity house, Gunawan had broken both of her knees and gained a slight concussion yet stayed at the fraternity that night to party.

Smiling at these situations, Gunawan and Weeks joked about a recent visit to Whole Foods in which there were no more handicap parking spots available. 

Having to park far from the door, the 30-degree Fahrenheit weather limited the range of motion in Gunawan’s hands, preventing her from being able to drive her wheelchair. Weeks recalled pushing Gunawan in front of her and a shopping cart behind her inside of Whole Foods as the pair laughed together through the discomfort.

Transportation on Georgia State’s campus has been its own feat for Gunawan.

Sometimes having to leave for her classes two hours early, Gunawan must take the Green Route from Piedmont North to class. Her freshman year, they did not strap down her wheelchair while the bus was moving. They also did not know how to use the ramp to get her inside the bus at first either.

Gunawan and Weeks must arrive at her classes early in order to “get the good seats.” 

“So many times, I’ve wanted to fight people,” Weeks said, referring to the people who do not register the need for Gunawan’s accommodations. “People aren’t really aware of what’s going on around them.” 

Joining groups for projects can be challenging as well with the “intimidation” factor often displayed by other students surrounding Gunawan. She and Weeks prefers that teachers assign groups instead of having to select one’s own.

Some other challenges Guanawan faces on campus have to deal with administration.

One professor has “just been really weird to Maddy,” said Weeks.  

Gunawan’s first day in class the professor first looked her up and down before asking her how much strength she had, an uncomfortable question for Gunawan. He then asked her if she could write on paper to which she responded, “No.” 

Not realizing that Weeks was Gunawan’s aide, the professor asked in annoyance if he had to sign her in every day on the attendance. 

Another time when returning to her dorm building, Gunawan’s aide could not park in the handicap spot as there were cars parked there without tags.

Approaching the security officers at the front desk, Gunawan told them her troubles, to which they replied that those were their cars. When they moved their cars, Gunawan felt as though she had to say, “Thank you. Sorry [that] you had to do that and be nice.”

“You’re forced to advocate for yourself a lot,” Weeks said.

Gunawan is currently majoring in computer information systems in order to develop better assistive technology for those with disabilities.

“Assistive technology is currently not made by those who have experienced it,” Weeks said. “She has good insight.”