The Disabled Students’ Program: 48 years of support, continued expansion

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Brian Bi/Staff

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First established in an office behind Top Dog on Durant Avenue in 1970, the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, has since expanded to serve about 1,700 students at UC Berkeley and is working to improve resource accessibility for students.

DSP provides accommodations and services for about 6 percent of the student population on campus. For students with physical disabilities, DSP offers a variety of services including room changes, more accessible classroom furniture and communication access real-time translation, or CART, in which a CART provider accompanies a deaf or hard of hearing student to class and produces word-to-text translations of lectures or discussions.

DSP also offers services for students with nonvisible disabilities that include chronic illnesses, learning disabilities, mental health disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. According to DSP Executive Director Karen Nielson, students with these disabilities make up the “vast majority” of students in the program, but there is a lack of understanding on campus about the challenges they face.

When the program was first established, it was named the Physically Disabled Students’ Program, but in 1982, “physically” was dropped from the name to recognize the services provided for students with learning disabilities, according to the DSP website.

ASUC Senator Zach Carter, who is in DSP for his anxiety, said in an email that when a professor confirmed accommodations he had requested, the professor “glance(d) me up and down.”

“I want people to know that DSP doesn’t ‘look’ like anything,” Carter said in an email. “I might not have physical differences. I’m still in DSP though.”

This year, DSP has been working to improve the accessibility of its resources. Nielson said students and other people with disabilities are trying to obtain a community space to connect and organize — a space “that celebrates the history of disability on this campus.”

UC Berkeley recently hired a new Americans with Disabilities Act/Section 504 compliance officer who is responsible for making the campus more physically accessible and responding to accessibility complaints. DSP also plans to hire a learning specialist for the federally funded TRiO program, which provides support for students who come from underrepresented groups or disadvantaged financial backgrounds, according to Nielson.

“In addition to our compliance responsibilities, … we’re trying to look beyond that to say, ‘What else do our students need?’ ” Nielson said. “What do they need to be successful … to graduate?”

English lecturer Georgina Kleege, who has been blind since a young age, said there is no program like DSP for faculty with disabilities. Kleege said she has been advocating for such a program with the Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights.

Carter said in an email that his experience with DSP has been “mixed.” He said he has noticed challenges with DSP services, specifically with its online portal. For example, when he sends his accommodation letter detailing the classroom or testing modifications he requires to GSIs and professors through DSP’s online portal, there is no way to confirm they have received the letter except for asking them in person, according to Carter.

When it comes to DSP test-taking services, there is little standardization in terms of when students receive proctoring notices, Carter said in an email. Sometimes he will receive his proctoring time and location a week in advance and other times only two days before the test, which he said causes him more anxiety.

Nielson said working on improving disability access on campus is a slow process, but “we’re making good progress.”

“In DSP we’re building a staff who are really highly committed to excellence and service,” Nielson said. “It’s a good time for people with disabilities at Cal.”

Contact Sabina Mahavni at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.