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Commencement profile: Through disability rights advocacy, she’s improved campus accessibility, climate 

May 1, 2024 By Doug Erickson
A woman standing in a sun filled room with lots of windows smiles at the camera.

Brelynn Bille has been a passionate advocate for disability rights on
campus, often tapping personal frustrations to fuel broader change. Photo by Doug Erickson

Brelynn Bille once had a supervisor who kept leaving items around the office in such a way that it made it difficult for Bille, who uses a wheelchair, to access her office. After multiple conversations about it with no changes, Bille moved all the items into her supervisor’s office and scattered them around the floor, preventing him from getting to his desk. 

She left a note saying, “If I have to continue to maneuver through barriers because someone else didn’t put away supplies, you will, too.” 

It’s an extreme example of her “sass and spunk,” says Bille (pronounced Billy). “I’m a feisty girl who doesn’t back down.” 

Bille will graduate this May from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a bachelor’s degree in community and nonprofit leadership. The major is offered through the School of Human Ecology. 

During her time on campus, Bille has been a passionate advocate for disability rights, often tapping personal frustrations to fuel broader change. 

“The grit she’s brought to her campus advocacy work on behalf of students with disabilities is remarkable,” says Michael Maguire, a member of the teaching faculty at the School of Human Ecology. “She’s not shy and does not back down, especially when, at the heart of a matter, is the justice, respect and kindness that are due to all people.” 

Bille, who began using a wheelchair as a sophomore due to a connective tissue condition, was among the leaders of the student coalition that successfully advocated for a Disability Cultural Center on campus. The center, at 702 W. Johnson St., opened in the spring of 2023 and was fully operational with programming this past fall. It encompasses a physical space, a social media presence, programming, and daily opportunities for community. The center is open to all students and affiliated with the McBurney Disability Resource Center, which is part of Student Affairs. 

For Bille, the center helps address some of the isolation she felt as a freshman in the fall of 2020 — isolation compounded by the pandemic.  

 “I talked to other students with disabilities at the time, and we all wanted to drop out,” says Bille, who grew up in Waupun, Wisconsin. “We felt excluded. We felt alone. But we also felt like we wanted to do something so that other students wouldn’t have to feel like that.” 

Bille says she’s been heartened to talk to undergraduates who now have access to the center. 

“It’s so nice to hear that they are finding community right away,” she says. “When you have a space where you can collectively come together and bring that identity with you, it can change everything.” 

Bille also was the driving force behind Gov. Tony Evers proclaiming July as Disability Pride Month in Wisconsin. Bille reached out to the governor’s office, urged a state proclamation, and provided sample language. Evers issued the proclamation in 2022 and again last year. A copy of it hangs in the Disability Cultural Center. 

“Brelynn is a talented weaver of networks and relationships,” says Helen Rottier, the center’s program coordinator. “She really brings people together and brings people into the fold who’ve been excluded, so that many perspectives can be shared and acknowledged.” 

Advocacy work is difficult, and in an ideal world, students wouldn’t have to do it, Rottier says. She applauds Brelynn and her classmates for building on a long history of activism by people with disabilities. In the way that they approach this work, Brelynn and others “exemplify disabled joy and disabled pride,” Rottier says. 

Much of what Brelynn has accomplished has occurred behind the scenes. Often this has meant dashing off an email to a professor or a department or a company that does business with the university. Bille is quick to credit an informal coalition of fellow students for this kind of advocacy. 

“It’s an uncomfortable conversation at times to call out someone’s ableism,” she says. “However, it has to be done so that future people don’t have to experience the same thing.” 

Bille has worked to raise awareness about the existence of the “Report an Accessibility Barrier” button on the UW–Madison Office of Compliance website, and she has advocated for accessible meeting, presentation and employment spaces. For a research project, she focused on identifying and reducing barriers across campus. 

Some of Bille’s activism falls under the broad umbrella of trying to increase understanding and empathy. 

“There’s so much stigma around disability,” she says. “For instance, just because my legs kind of suck doesn’t mean I can’t produce wonderful thoughts that would be beneficial to a group project.” 

Bille praises the staff at the McBurney Disability Resource Center for the assistance they provide her and other students, though she would like to see the center’s funding increased. Better yet, she would like to see the day when a center like McBurney is no longer necessary. 

“The McBurney Center wouldn’t even need to be there if professors were more inclusive from the start and if every part of the university considered inclusiveness and accessibility in everything it did.” 

Says McBurney Center Director Mari Magler: “Brelynn has done so many positive things for this campus. Her advocacy points out that there is so much work yet to be done on so many levels. As a university, we might be providing students with accommodations, but accommodations don’t always mean full access. Access doesn’t always lead to inclusion, and inclusion doesn’t always lead to a sense of belonging.” 

In another success for Bille, she and Morgan Peters, a fellow community and nonprofit leadership student, represented the School of Human Ecology at the national Philanthropy Lab Ambassadors Conference in 2022. Competing against other colleges and universities, they won a $50,000 grant for ReGeneration International Inc., a nonprofit that works with children and adults who have faced sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking in the Philippines. 

Bille also was just named one of two winners of a 2024 Theodore Herfurth and Teddy Kubly Award for Comprehensive Undergraduate Excellence, among the oldest and most prestigious honors on campus. 

The awards are given annually to two seniors who have made the most effective use of their time at UW–Madison. 

While finishing her bachelor’s degree this year, Bille has simultaneously been pursuing an accelerated master’s degree from the La Follette School of Public Affairs on campus. For her career, she is interested in doing some form of disability advocacy, perhaps in the realm of policy and research. 

As an undergraduate, she hopes she’s left her mark on campus. 

“More than anything — and this is super cheesy, I know — I genuinely want to leave UW–Madison better than I found it when I came here. My approach has been to do whatever it is I have to do, with the power and connections I have, so that the next student like me faces even just one less barrier to their degree.” 

Interesting in learning more about disability rights advocacy? Check out the 2024-25 Go Big Read book, “Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body.

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