Students with disabilities face inaccessibility, dwindling resources in campus housing

Lorenz Gonzales/File

Related Posts

Campus senior Justin Illescas never lived in campus housing, although they would have liked to. Illescas, who uses they/them pronouns, said UC Berkeley housing never replied to their application, and as a differently abled individual, they were not sure how to ask for accommodations in the first place.

“I have short legs and I get tired very easily, so stairs aren’t always the best option for me,” they said.

Illescas eventually found an apartment complex that fits their needs, and they now live more than two miles away from campus. Illescas struggled to find an accessible apartment that was both within their budget and close to campus, in part because they were waiting for an offer that never came from UC Berkeley housing.

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said students with disabilities are “welcomed and encouraged” to live in campus housing. UC Berkeley housing has a coordinator who works with students who have disabilities and are living in campus housing to ensure they are properly accommodated, according to Ratliff. Students can request an automatic door opener, a strobe light fire alarm and smoke detector, and a visual doorbell, among other accommodations, according to Ratliff.

Ratliff added that UC Berkeley housing typically does not receive complaints related to accessibility, except those related to elevator issues. If the elevator in a residence hall is not fixed in a timely manner, Ratliff said the campus will reach out to students with mobility-related needs to see if they would like to transfer to a different location.

Campus freshman Salil Goyal, who lives in Unit 1, faced these issues when he dislocated his kneecap and was on crutches. It was “pretty inconvenient,” he said, to have to climb the stairs while the elevator was out of service.

Goyal added that UC Berkeley housing eventually asked him if he would like to transfer to another location, but sent the transfer request form after he had gotten off crutches and had regained full mobility.

The challenges Illescas faced in finding accessible campus housing led them to run for the ASUC Senate in spring 2018, hoping to use their platform to advocate for students of all abilities.

Part of Illescas’ platform included reinstating the Disabled Students’ Residence Program, or DSRP. In its initial years, the program provided physical care for students living in the residence halls and also taught them to hire and train their own personal care attendants, according to Karen Nielson, director of the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP.

The DSRP, however, transitioned to a new model in 2014 that placed greater emphasis on independent living skills because of pressure from the state Department of Rehabilitation, which funded the program.

The program was aimed toward students with physical disabilities, according to UC Berkeley alumna Cynthia Chen, who uses a wheelchair and was in the DSRP. Chen said she felt “awful” when she heard the DSRP would be terminated.

“I got what I needed from it, but there are so many people, new students, who would absolutely need something like (the DSRP),” Chen said. “It was one of the main reasons I chose to go to Berkeley.”

The DSRP would provide an attendant for students during their first year but would teach them skills so they could properly vet and hire their own help upon graduating. Most students in the program came into college not knowing how to hire an attendant, as their parents had taken care of it before, Chen said.

Nielson said in an email that the DSRP had five or six students upon closing. The largest group the program ever served was 10 students, Nielson added.

Illescas said if students need intimate, extra care, then the campus should help to accommodate them. Though Illescas was not elected to the senate, they said they plan to work on bringing back the DSRP through the office of ASUC Senator Teddy Lake.

“It’s still something that I hold very dear to my heart,” Illescas said. “I definitely don’t want to let it go.”

Chen added that every year after she graduated, the DSP kept “crumbling.” The Disabled Students’ Readiness Program, which was born out of the now-terminated residence program, was also cut in 2016 because of federal regulations that changed the way in which the Department of Rehabilitation could fund the program.

The readiness program offered employment help and aimed to help students with disabilities navigate workplace interactions and communicate with professors and campus staff. Nielson said in an email that new services have replaced the readiness program — currently, all DSP students are eligible to meet with the DSP career counselor, and the DSP has a specialist who provides services and coaching to students on the autism spectrum.

The DSP is currently exploring partnerships and funding models to potentially create a program similar to the DSRP.

“The DSP Director, along with other campus leaders, has interest in re-creating an independent living support program within a residence setting,” Nielson said in an email.

Bonnie Weinstein Crowe, president of the UC Berkeley Parent Coalition for Disability Rights, said in an email that the DSP is “gradually” improving. The DSP, according to Weinstein Crowe, has hired more qualified staff to help students and reinstated a weekly group for students on the autism spectrum.

One issue Weinstein Crowe identified, however, was the relationships between resident assistants and students with disabilities. Many RAs are not aware of students’ individual needs, and the campus should provide better training, she said in an email.

“It was an issue before I transferred here at the campus I was at, it was an issue here, and I know it’ll be an issue whenever I leave this place,” Illescas said of housing accessibility. “I hope there’s a day when I, along with other folks, can stop worrying about that.”

Anjali Shrivastava is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.