By Stephen Neukam
Public pressure is mounting on Rider to make a sorority building on its campus accessible for a partially-paralyzed student whose peers have started a popular social media and internet campaign to push the university to action.
Students of the sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma, put together TikTok videos and started an online petition to garner support for freshman elementary education major Bridget Gum, who is tetraplegic, and her hope to get the sorority house fitted to meet her needs.
To date, the university has not given Gum a timeline for whether or not it will pursue the renovations or how long they might take. Instead, it has offered for Gum to stay in a different building on campus, Hill Hall, which is more suitable for her needs next year.
The petition, which urges the university to make the house wheelchair accessible, has over 7,200 signatures on Change.org as of April 6. Gum was taken aback by the support from her sorority sisters and the Rider community.
“I am used to people saying, ‘That sucks,’ and then kind of moving on,” said Gum. “I’m not used to this. And it was very overwhelming but in a great way to see people getting behind me.”
When Gum was an infant, she developed a rare autoimmune disorder that attacked her spinal cord and left her paralyzed below the upper chest with partial control over four limbs. It’s a condition that Gum has learned to work around, prideful of the way she compensates for the physical difficulties.
“I compensate a lot so I look more normal,” said Gum. “People would not be able to guess my function externally from the things that I do sometimes.”
In response to the petition, the university released a statement that publicly criticized the sorority campaign because it “reinforced a false perception that Rider was unwilling to make facilities renovations that would accommodate a person who uses a wheelchair in the building.”
“We are committed to working with all students to understand their unique needs and make accommodations where necessary for them to fully access the Rider student experience,” the statement continued.
The original petition written by a sorority sister, which has since been modified, said that the university refused to do the renovations, a claim that Gum admitted was false. Instead, Gum said she was told that the renovations would take a long time to complete.
Gum was disappointed that the university focused on the inaccuracy of the petition rather than the inaccessibility of the Greek house.
“The fact that is the part that they chose to focus on in itself is extremely discouraging and very frustrating for me,” said Gum. “The second I saw [the petition] I knew that’s what [the university] was going to do. I am just kind of upset that I was right.”
Sophomore journalism major Gabrielle Waid, who created the petition, said that her goal was to put public pressure on the university and that she hopes the school would “do the right thing.” She said she wanted to drum up support for Gum after trying to put herself in her shoes.
The university declined to answer specific questions from The Rider News regarding the timeline of possible renovations, the cost and the number of wheelchair-accessible dorms currently available on campus. Instead, a Rider spokesman said that “the University has not received a formal request for housing accommodations from the student.”
“For those advocating to make Phi Sigma Sigma wheelchair accessible, please know that Rider has not denied any request to do so,” said the spokesman. “Our confidence remains high that, if allowed to unfold, the process will ultimately achieve a satisfactory result that addresses individual needs and complies with applicable law, as it is designed to do.”
Caption: Students of the sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma, started an online petition to garner support for freshman elementary education major Bridget Gum to get the sorority house fitted to meet her needs.
Caption: The Phi Sigma Sigma house has no entrances with ramps, making it inaccessible for Gum.