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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