UC Berkeley student with disabilities faces obstacles with campus program

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Emilia Bulfone/Staff

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Autumn Shearer, a senior majoring in media studies, hasn’t been able to attend class for the past week since fracturing her foot last Friday.

Shearer, who is blind, has managed the commute from Albany while temporarily using a wheelchair. She can get as far as the curb outside Barrows Hall but cannot climb the ramp to eventually reach her classroom on the fifth floor without assistance.

She would have been able to receive a personal attendant through the campus’s Disabled Students’ Residence Program, but it was discontinued in 2014. As a result, her counselor at the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, declined to provide an assistant, directing her instead to external attendant services that Shearer said she cannot afford.

Shearer will be wheelchair-bound for the next month, and then in a boot, which will allow her to stand but not walk well. Typically, students who can’t walk use the campus golf cart system, The Loop, but she can’t use that service, either: Its operations have switched from a phone line to an app that is inaccessible to the blind.

“I don’t understand why I’m fighting,” Shearer said. “What is with the accessibility issues? Our campus is where the disability movement took place.”

The DSP has undergone major reorganization over the past three months, with the arrival of a new director Karen Nielson, and this week’s discontinuation of programs such as Workability IV and the related Disabled Students’ Readiness Program. These programs provided resources to help disabled students adjust to life on campus and to careers post-graduation but were officially discontinued Monday because of regulation changes in how state funding for the program is administered.

According to Nielson, the Americans with Disabilities Act determines what accommodation services universities are required to pay for, and compliant services at UC Berkeley are entirely funded by the campus. Personal services, such as provision of attendants, are not included.

“The experience of students over the last couple years has been that students have not felt that they have gotten that personal touch from DSP, that it’s been very transactional,” Nielson said.

One of the resources Nielson intends to provide for students is connections with disability specialists in DSP who will work with all students in the program to meet their career and social needs.

Karen Nakamura, a campus professor of anthropology and secretary of the Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights, said the issue is complicated because disabled students who live off campus do not get personal services. The school’s current structures, she said, do a poor job of providing the economic resources necessary to meet disability access needs.

“It’s odd because in many ways, Berkeley is a really accessible campus,” Nakamura said.

Many students with disabilities, including Shearer, said they have been disappointed by the DSP’s capacity to provide basic resources, such as alternative media textbooks and universally accessible course readers. Last fall, Shearer said she fell behind in a Celtic studies class because her textbooks were not transcribed into Braille on time and it took weeks of repeated contact with the DSP office to find a reading assistant.

“There’s a feeling that we are not a priority,” said Lisa Albertson, a campus undergraduate social welfare major who is part of the Berkeley Disabled Students group.

On Thursday, after exchanging many emails and phone calls, Shearer was informed that DSP would provide her an assistant to help her up to her classroom and — after further negotiation — someone to help her access bathroom facilities. Nielson later informed Shearer that she would escort her personally.

“I know that a lot of disabled students, we get beat down all the time, just for simple rights,” Shearer said. “What about the students who don’t know how to make their voice heard?”

Contact Ashley Wong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.

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  • Karen Nielson

    Students are our first priority at DSP. The last couple of years have brought change, and unprecedented growth and new challenges. We have work to do but we are moving in a positive direction. As the new director I am fully committed to work with our students and staff to continue to grow and improve and to find new and innovative ways to serve our students.
    Sometimes problem solving with students when unusual situations come up takes time and conversation to understand what is truly needed. We will seek solutions for our students whenever possible within the scope of our resources and will also connect students to other campus resources. I am happy to talk with anyone in our community about DSP Services and all of the many great services we provide to our students and also how we can continue to grow and improve.
    Karen Nielson [email protected]

  • Karen Nakamura

    Because some people will be confused because of the uproar of the shut-down of the DSRP earlier this month. The DSRP was modified significantly in 2014 (see linked Daily Cal article), reducing its services considerably. This modified DSRP was then shut-down completely this month.

  • Yoni Mayeri

    Tragic. I would hope that other students in her class could assist her in getting to class. Where is the community of students helping each other on campus?

    • tibble

      I’m sure students were willing. But there’s a difference between hoping and waiting to see if someone will volunteer to help, and having an assigned attendant whose job it is to assist you. If I need to go to the restroom, I don’t want to have to ask the class who can help me, I want to tell my assistant/attendant and go. Relying on volunteers puts you at their whim and availability. Having actual staff whose job it is to support accessibility ensures needs are met in a timely and respectful fashion.