Students reflect on challenges of securing Disabled Students’ Program academic accommodations

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Before beginning her first year at UC Berkeley, campus freshman Sonali Loomba had already procured academic accommodations, including extended test time and reduced course load, from the campus Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP.

Loomba submitted her application during the summer and had everything figured out before school even started. But she said that although she found it easy to contact specialists and secure accommodations, it was difficult to know what options were available to her. All she could find on the website was a list of general suggestions of accommodations.

Loomba is not the only student who has faced obstacles when attempting to secure DSP accommodations.

With more than 30,000 students enrolled in undergraduate programs at UC Berkeley, the campus faces the challenge of catering to more than 30,000 unique students, each one with different educational needs. In order to help students reach their full academic potential, DSP currently provides academic accommodations to 2,700 campus students, according to DSP Director Karen Nielson.

According to Nielson, the application for academic accommodations — which is open to freshman, transfer and continuing students — is available online. A disability specialist with a master’s degree reviews medical documentation submitted by the student and conducts an interview to determine that the student is a person with a disability. The student can meet with the DSP specialist and discuss which accommodations will best address the barriers in the student’s learning environment.

“An accommodation can be anything that addresses a barrier,” Nielson said in an email. “For example, moving a class for a student with a mobility impairment or purchasing an adjustable desk or accessible equipment for a lab. We do offer some specific services including captioning and (communication access real-time translation, or) CART, interpreting, note-takers, exam proctoring, and alternative media.”

According to Nielson, DSP is adding new programming outside of the legally required exam adjustments and basic auxiliary support services. New programs may include career services, services for students on the autism spectrum and — coming in the next year — a learning specialist in order to increase students’ retention and success.

Loomba said she was pleasantly surprised that her experience trying to secure DSP accommodations to help deal with her chronic health issues was much easier than it had been in high school. She said she was able to apply for the accommodations by working with her doctor to prepare the online application.

“(The ease of applying for accommodations) was something that I was not used to in high school. … That was really comforting because usually you have to fight and advocate for yourself,” Loomba said. “Everyone’s really easy to get in touch with, and you can just submit a request to change (accommodations) and it’s all there.”

But Loomba added that it is hard for new students to know what accommodations they need in a new environment, and having more options presented to her would have been helpful.

ASUC Senator Zach Carter recently accomplished his platform goal of linking DSP resources to CalCentral — a goal he pursued partially because it took him more than seven months to find the resources himself.

“I had a very difficult time enrolling in DSP because I did not know where to find the resources. It wasn’t talked about at orientation, and I didn’t know that being neuroatypical could qualify for DSP,” Carter said in a Facebook message.

Nancy Barker, a deaf Canadian resident who came to UC Berkeley as a visiting student researcher and doctoral candidate, faced her own set of struggles in obtaining the accommodations she needed.

Barker filed a complaint against UC Berkeley because she was unable to receive the accommodations she needed to complete her degree. Barker’s attorney, Andrew Rozynski, explained that the current system puts the financial burden on individual campus departments. DSP will only provide funds if the department claims it cannot afford the service, Rozynski said.

“I think one of the problems that happened was that what they do is they put the burden of accommodation on the department themselves rather than on the Disability Services Office initially,” Rozynski said. “I have had other cases involving universities, not public universities. … In that situation, usually the DSP services arranges and pays for the accommodations, so this is … a unique situation.”

According to Rozynski, Barker was actively discouraged from requesting accommodations because they would be too expensive.

Rozynski said Barker’s lawsuit is aimed at ensuring that departments do not deter students and researchers with disabilities from utilizing their programs. He said the lawsuit is “not only for herself but for all the other deaf people in the community who would like to go to Berkeley as a visiting student researcher.”

Loomba pointed to another barrier to receiving DSP services for many students: the fear that others may perceive them differently if they need accommodations. Carter said he also dealt with the “stigma” surrounding students who receive DSP services.

“I feel like people look down upon (DSP students), which is a little sad, but whenever you interact with someone from the DSP office they treat you very well and on equal footing,” Loomba said. “It makes you not afraid to reach out and ask. … I feel like people are hesitant to do so because they’re worried about what other people may think, but then once you make that first step, it’s really easy and really helpful and worth your time.”

Sabrina Dong covers crime and courts. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Sabrina_Dong_.