Ann Thompson had already been through a lot when she rolled up to the steps of a building at Central Washington University in the early...

Ann Thompson had already been through a lot when she rolled up to the steps of a building at Central Washington University in the early 1970s.

A childhood case of polio had left her in a wheelchair. Her high-flying life as the wife of a corporate executive in Europe had ended in divorce, sending her back to Washington with two daughters and no career.

Now she faced this challenge: How to get up the steps to her class. In the end, Ms. Thompson resorted to paying fellow students to carry her, wheelchair and all, up the stairs.

That experience, on top of a lifetime confronting the difficulties of a world built largely for people with two working legs, led her to a life advocating for the rights of people with disabilities at Central Washington University and around the state.

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“It was a whole new concept in how to educate people and make education accessible for people with disabilities. That really became her career, her focal point — ‘Aha, I can really make a difference here,’ ” said her eldest daughter, Mary Thompson-Bacho, of University Place, Pierce County.

Ms. Thompson died April 14 at her Tacoma apartment from colon cancer. She was 77.

Ms. Thompson was born to a life of privilege in Seattle on Dec. 10, 1930, as Dorothy Ann Bonny. Her father, John Bruce Bonny, would become president of the international construction firm Morrison Knudsen.

In California as a child, she contracted polio and lost most use of her legs. That experience set her life’s trajectory, from everyday hardships to her eventual career as head of Central Washington University’s services for students with disabilities.

In that position, she worked closely with students to help them navigate campus life. Her program got a van to ferry people around in the winter, said her younger daughter, Sarah Thompson, of Hollywood, Calif.

She arranged to have sign-language interpreters in classes for deaf students, lobbied to have classes moved to the ground floor for people in wheelchairs, and worked to help people find jobs after they graduated, her younger daughter said.

Her work helped earn her an appointment to a state commission under then-Gov. Dan Evans that examined how to protect the rights of disabled people in Washington, her daughters said. That law was a precursor to the 1990 federal disability law, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s one of those unusual situations where she was the right person at the right time and the mind-set was ‘We need to do something,’ ” said Thompson-Bacho.

In addition to her daughters, survivors include her partner, Jack Akers, of Tacoma; sisters Jean McCauley, of San Francisco, and Janet Wells, of Carlsbad, Calif.; and a brother, John Bruce Bonny, of El Cajon, Calif.

Donations may be made to the Home of Guiding Hands, Caldera Home, 1825 Gillespie Way, El Cajon, CA 92020.

No services are planned.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or