“This school likes to pride itself on being the most accessible campus on earth, and that’s … it’s just not true.”
Lisa Albertson is a transfer student at UC Berkeley but unlike most of her undergraduate peers, she has been a student on campus since the year 2009. She is also one of many UC Berkeley students with a disability and attributes her lengthy undergraduate career to what she calls an “incompetence” on behalf of UC Berkeley and the Disabled Students’ Program. “I came in as a transfer undergrad (with) a reduced course load,” she said. “Which would mean I’d be here a little more than two years than the average transfer student. I am here seven years later, because of having to go through the whole process.” Albertson attributes the loss of her financial aid to the academic challenges she’s faced, such as not receiving notes for classes two years after they’d ended.
In 2015, Albertson established Berkeley Disabled Students, a third-party group unaffiliated with the UC’s Disabled Students’ Program. Albertson said she founded the group in response to DSP’s incompetence and a lack of a campus community for students with disabilities.
Recently, questions have arisen among the disabled student population regarding the accessibility of the UC Berkeley campus. For Sarah Funes — a senior political science major, BDS member and cancer survivor — these experiences of exclusiveness add up. “My disability dictates where I am able to sit during a lecture, and sometimes it is impossible to get a desk on the left side of a classroom, so I can’t see,” she said. “Often times, I can’t even get notes in the format I need until weeks after. I can’t, for example, go out on weekends, because I don’t have the materials for my classes.”
But, for many students, anxieties with campus services extend beyond the classroom. Until a string of recent budget cuts, Funes has relied on the campus’s Workability IV Program, or WAIV. The program helped students with disabilities transition into academic and professional life, and it offered services such as resume editing and counseling. On Sept. 2, however, the university notified students via email that the program would be ending in early October, along with the related Disabled Students Readiness Program (DSRP). Funes is concerned with how the outcome will affect younger students. “I wouldn’t be where I am without that program,” said Funes, who says she has WAIV to thank for her previous internships. “But without WAIV, there are a lot of students who won’t be offered the same opportunities as I have.” Funes believes her campus “has nothing to stop (WAIV) from dying.
For both Albertson and Funes, being a Berkeley student with a disability hasn’t gotten any easier. Albertson believes this has to do with a lack of proper staffing at the administrative level of the Disabled Students’ Program.
“Last year was a difficult year for DSP,” said program director Karen Nielson. “There were a lot of people who left before the fall semester started, including DSP’s disability specialists.” Last fall, there were only two specialists working for approximately 1,800 Berkeley students with disabilities. Short-staffed and desperate, DSP hired temporary help to compensate. In the midst of this, Nielson’s predecessor, Paul Hippolitus, was in the process of retiring. Nielson joined the staff in July, and DSP currently employs six full-time, fully trained specialists. But the questions still remain: What about professors making their courses accessible for their students? What about the termination of career center services and WAIV?
“Often times, I can’t even get notes in the format I need until weeks after. I can’t, for example, go out on weekends, because I don’t have the materials for my classes.”
According to Na’ilah Nasir, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, the only way UC Berkeley teaching staff are “trained” to be accommodating to students with disabilities is via email. “There’s an email that goes out from campus to faculty, reminding them of the accommodations process and their legal mandate,” Nasir said. “There’s also a new faculty orientation, but nothing that’s ongoing or deep that provides additional support about that process.” To many, such as Albertson, this is a deep concern — a concern that is quite valid, given the recent allegations regarding the inaccessibility of online campus resources. In response, Albertson said in an email that she has proposed “a mandatory fall training for all teaching staff regarding how DSP functions, reasonable modifications, universal design and cultural needs of disabled students.”
“We realize there needs to be a better mechanism for providing this information,” Nasir said. “Training is how we’re thinking about it. … We imagine having something to roll out within the year.”
The “restrictive Workability IV program,” as Nielson called it, only served about 60 of the 1,800 students with disabilities who are in attendance at UC Berkeley. As grant funding diminished, the program had been becoming more restrictive, in terms of the types of services available. But there is something bigger and more inclusive in the works, Nielson said. “We started thinking creatively about, ‘What are the best ways to serve our students?’” As of late, for example, DSP has been working on creating a partnership with the career services center. WAIV previously operated completely independently. “We are working on a method in which we can serve all of our DSP students, not just those who were eligible (through the grant).”
Moving forward, the voices of Berkeley Disabled Students and other disability activists on campus have not gone unheard, especially to Dean Jeffrey Edleson of the School of Social Welfare. “I do understand the frustrations the students experienced last year and I am, in fact, proud that they are leading this activism on campus. Their frustration last year was shared by faculty and staff as well,” Edleson said in an email. “I do stand by my statement below that DSP should be providing campus-wide training to faculty and staff and I also agree with the students that reduced coursework without pro-rated tuition should be re-examined by the University administration.”
Ultimately, there is still a lot of work to be done. Sarah Funes, who has taken this semester off to intern at the White House said, “I’m grateful to be (a UC Berkeley student), but people with disabilities aren’t given a seat at the table.”