Program for disabled students transitions to new model for services in fall

Lorenz Angelo Gonzales/Staff

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In response to funding pressures and a shift in demographics, UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Residence Program is transitioning to a model that will place a greater emphasis on independent living skills.

Staff of DSRP — a unit of the Disabled Students’ Program — will oversee personal care attendants rather than performing personal care themselves. Set to begin this fall, the new program will also strengthen access to services for disabled students the summer before they arrive on campus.

Along with staff and former students, program coordinator Kevin Shields has worked on the new model for a little more than a year.

After the economic downturn, the California Department of Rehabilitation, which funds programs for people with disabilities, directed DSRP to focus on making jobs its goal, according to Shields.

“We are getting pressure from funding sources,” Shields said. “The Department of Rehabilitation doesn’t pay for personal care.”

Rochelle Thompson, a DSRP staff member, said the Department of Rehabilitation made it clear the program’s staff could no longer do personal care. Adapting the program allowed it to maintain its contract with the department.

Under the new model, program staff will hire providers through In-Home Supportive Services, or IHSS, to work as personal care attendants. IHSS assists state residents who are blind, disabled or elderly in paying for meal-preparation, house-cleaning and bathing, among other services. Students will hire their own attendants, and those who are eligible will receive monetary support from IHSS.

The demographics of DSRP have changed in the past few years to include fewer students with mobility impairments and more with mental or developmental disabilities, such as autism, according to Shields.

“DSRP made sense at one time, but it hasn’t in the last five years,” Shields said, adding that for the first time in 40 years, there will be no incoming students this fall who require personal care attendants.

According to Shields, the new design of the program will focus on practical workshops that build independence, such as cooking lessons for the visually impaired or social skills role-play for those who have autism.

“(Disabled students) are beat with this idea that they can’t and shouldn’t be employed, and it’s a lot of work to overcome that,” Shields said. “From day one, these students need role models and mentors so they think, ‘I can do this.’ ”

There was some opposition to the program’s changes among those involved in the planning process, according to Thompson, although she said most of the students, staff and community members involved in adapting the program were supportive of the changes.

“It’s really scary for anybody who has had a certain amount of support to have that support changed,” Thompson said. “The misunderstanding that a lot of people are having is that we are going to stop providing care, which is not true.”

In an effort to help disabled students transition to UC Berkeley, Shields said he meets with them the summer before they arrive to help them navigate and apply for services.

In the new program, this prearrival process will be “a lot more rigorous” to ensure services are in place before students get to campus, Thompson said.

Students affiliated with DSRP received an email from Shields in January outlining the changes that will be made to the program in the next few months.

Ann Kwong, a UC Berkeley junior who participated in DSRP when she first came to campus, said she was pessimistic about the transition. As a visually impaired student, Kwong did not require an attendant but said that for those who do, having one is crucial.

“I feel like it’s pretty drastic,” Kwong said. “I certainly think that as a new student, especially if you’re coming from out of state, it would be difficult to get services set up here.”

As a state-funded program, DSRP does not serve out-of-state residents, although program staff typically coordinate with other states’ equivalents to the Department of Rehabilitation to secure support for these students, according to Thompson.

“I don’t think you can get things set up that quickly,” Kwong said, referring to students attaining a personal care attendant. “The service students use to get attendants is through the government, and it can be slow and bureaucratic.”

Kwong added that the changes themselves are positive and increase the necessity for disabled students to be proactive.

UC Berkeley is often regarded as an important player in the disability rights movement that began in the 1960s. Soon after, an earlier incarnation of the DSP was established.

“It’s really time for this,” Shields said, referring to the new model. “It’s the right time to make more of an emphasis on people having real-world experiences when they first get here — that’s a much more appropriate place to focus our energy.”

Contact Angel Grace Jennings at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @angeljenningss.