Willing and able: The struggle of finding accessible housing at UC Berkeley

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As a student with some personal mobility issues because of back-related problems that resulted in surgery, I applied for accommodations with my student housing when I was accepted to Cal.

The types of accommodations that are usually offered include housing with automatic doors and elevators, light-up doorbells for the hearing impaired, strobe-light fire alarms or smoke detectors (also typically for students with hearing impairments), assistance or support animals, rooms with extra space or on the ground floor, and so on.

The sort of accommodation I asked for was merely the stipulation that my housing would be nearby campus — for my own benefit after long days of lugging around books and my laptop on my back. I was granted my wish in January of last year before transferring to UC Berkeley, and I was delighted to find out I was given housing in Stern, the all-girls residence hall.

It wasn’t until moving in and starting CalSO (back when it was called CalSO) that I began to see a few problems with this particular housing and its accessibility. While technically close to campus, Stern, along with its neighbor Foothill, is ironically placed at the top of a hill, making it a hike to get to and from class every single day. Thankfully, I began to learn how to get around via the bus and the Night Safety Shuttle or find shortcuts through Stanley and Cory halls. But even as my stamina has improved over the year and a half I’ve lived at Stern, I’m still very much aware of its issues of inaccessibility that many students encounter every day.

People with even greater impairment than my own would find it especially difficult to navigate Foothill or Stern. While there is a ramp option up the hill from the street, it stops halfway, preventing anyone with a wheelchair from being able to make it the rest of the way unless they want to go up the even steeper driveway known as the fire lane.

A student I knew at Stern was on crutches for the whole of last semester and still had to climb the hill every day. I realized my own privilege and how relatively abled I am, so I sat down with her to talk about her experiences, because the level of mobility issues I had couldn’t compare to someone with their foot in a boot.

According to her, Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP does what it can to help. Ben Perez, the campus access coordinator, came up to Stern the moment my friend in order to called to check out what sort of accommodations there could be for her situation. According to her, even he had to comment on how inaccessible Stern is.

“Even the wheelchair accessible path is bumpy and scary and long,” she explained. “And the real route to completely avoid stairs is all the way to the Greek Theater and down this winding long loop — and now it’s completely off limits due to construction.”

For students with mobility issues in Foothill’s La Loma Complex right now, it’s even worse. The options are either going down the stairs or attempting to go down the steep hill that is Hearst Avenue — not a viable option for many students.

So what does DSP have to offer for injured and disabled students?

The Loop, or golf cart services on campus, can help to an extent, but as of now they cannot leave campus. For students up in the hills, be it Unit 4 or beyond, you are stuck climbing the most difficult part on your own. Thankfully the Night Safety Shuttle will go all the way up to Foothill or Stern, but not everyone wants to be out until 7:30 p.m. every day.  

It really does make a difference based on location — depending on where your classes are you may be able to make the trip back and forth to your residence hall throughout the day without feeling like you have to bring everything with you whenever you leave your room. But it can be challenging to plan classes around their room locations, so its more than likely you’ll end up unlucky, at least on a few days of the week.

Another glaring issue currently at Stern are the elevators. At the beginning of the year, Stern had only one working elevator out of two — and that elevator is so old that the button one pushes to hail the elevator says “derail” on it, and it often goes to a floor that you didn’t push first so you have to make multiple attempts to get to the correct floor. While the other elevator technically is working again, it is even worse as it freezes with the door closed and makes loud grating sounds as it struggles to open, is not always level with the floor and sometimes emits a funny smell.

And this isn’t even to mention the fact that each elevator only goes to certain floors. In order to avoid stairs completely, you have to make sure you use one elevator, get off at the second floor, transfer elevators and then go on to the floor you were trying to go to.

As a school, accessibility should be our first priority. We can do better than this — in fact, we must in order to truly be the best public university in the world for students of all abilities.

Contact Lauren West at [email protected].