A look back: Disabled Students’ Program reconciles rich history with criticism, fraud allegations

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Nestled behind the popular Golden Bear Cafe is the office of the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP. Its unassuming exterior belies a program that is both the product of a rich history of disability activism and a reminder that the work is far from done.

“What I always say to people is, you can’t tell the story of Berkeley — whether you’re talking about the campus or the town — without talking about disability, and you can’t tell the story of disability without talking about Berkeley,” said DSP disability specialist Danny Kodmur.

Much of the story begins with Ed Roberts, who was admitted to UC Berkeley in 1962 as the university’s first severely disabled student. The university housed him in an empty wing of what was then Cowell Memorial Hospital, where the Haas School of Business stands today, according to DSP director Karen Nielson.

With Roberts’ lead, other disabled students such as John Hessler and Hale Zukas soon joined him as UC Berkeley students and residents of Cowell Memorial Hospital, which developed into the Cowell Residence Program for severely disabled students. Together, they formed a community of students with disabilities who called themselves the “Rolling Quads.”

“That was pretty radical in and of itself,” Nielson said. “That was the first time people with disabilities identified themselves in a positive way.”

In 1970, Roberts, Hessler and Zukas received a federal grant of $80,000 to start the Physically Disabled Students’ Program, one of the first disability services programs in the country and the ancestor of DSP. Its office was located on Durant Avenue behind what is currently the Top Dog eatery.

In the past two decades, however, the school has been sued twice for accessibility issues. Kaaryn Gustafson sued the campus in 1997 for discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging a lack of physical access for “people with mobility disabilities,” according to the lawsuit.

The campus settled in 2005 and as a result, dedicated more resources to facilitating disabled students’ access around campus. In 2013, the campus settled a second lawsuit by agreeing to improve its alternative media access for students who have trouble accessing print media.

Today, DSP serves about 2500 students, according to Nielson, a significant increase from about 1900 in fall 2016. Nielson, who took over as director in July 2016, attributes much of the growth to the program’s outreach efforts and improved services.

“When I came, I just listened to a lot of people,” Nielson said. “What I heard over and over again was that DSP was too transactional … And so we’ve really tried to shift and make it more of a student service organization.”

Nielson cites several changes, such as redesigning the waiting area to be more welcoming, hiring more specialists and offering services beyond accommodations. These new services include career counseling and a weekly autism social skills group.

But DSP has also faced criticism and allegations of fraud under Nielson’s tenure. In October 2016, the campus discontinued WorkAbility IV, a state Department of Rehabilitation program that offers career development services to students with disabilities, because the campus could no longer maintain compliance with state funding regulations.

More recently, TRiO at Disabled Students’ Program, an academic retention program specifically for disabled students on campus, faced allegations of federal fraud for inflating the number of students enrolled in order to receive more funding.

Echoing these concerns about campus disability access, the Berkeley Disabled Students, or BDS, a campus disability activist group, has alleged that students are not getting the accommodations they are entitled to.

“In many cases the progress that has come about has not come about because the university has said we need to do this,” Nielson said. “It’s come about because people have pushed to do it. That’s no different than today.”

Campus senior Sarah Funes, co-chair of BDS and a DSP student, detailed multiple instances throughout her time at UC Berkeley when she did not receive the necessary accommodations.

In fall 2015, Funes was forced to late drop a course because the campus Loop system could not transport her from the Valley Life Sciences Building to Wheeler Hall on time. In spring 2017, her notetaking request was not fulfilled until three weeks before the semester ended, which caused her to late drop another course. On top of that, Funes is still enrolled in TRiO even though she said she never signed up and does not receive any of its services.

“I tell disabled students applying to Cal to not go there because it’s not a good environment (to) help you achieve your academic dreams,” Funes said. “This university needs to value us.”

Lisa Albertson, founder of BDS, listed a number of issues such as inexperienced specialists, use of ineffective software and a lack of transparency. Albertson also said that she gets anywhere from one to four new students a week reaching out to the group for help in navigating the process to receive letters of accommodation.

“I’ve had students reach out to our group and stating that they’re having (a) hard time, not getting prompt return response requests to meet with specialists,Albertson said. “With high turnover rate of specialists coming in and out in the past few years, that has continually been a problem.”

Nielson acknowledged that DSP was short-staffed last semester, which delayed communication and increased wait times. DSP, however, now has six specialists and plans to request two additional specialists this summer. Nielson noted that in the midst of campus budget cuts, DSP funding has increased in the past few years, and she remains hopeful for the future of the program.

“I have this vision for DSP that continues the tradition of our history, which is that we do things before other people do them. We do things better than other people do them,” Nielson said. “I’m not saying we’re there yet, but that’s my goal for DSP: for us to serve in ways that excel.”

Contact Katherine Yen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @k_yen14.