UC Berkeley should create a disability cultural space

Person with a dog, person with a cane, and person in a wheelchair sitting and talking
Evelyn Zou/Staff

Wheeling to my very first meeting of the Student Coalition for Disability Rights, I was ecstatic to meet other disabled students and gather in a place I could eventually call home. UC Berkeley’s reputation of being the birthplace of the Disability Rights Movement was not lost on me, and I had anticipated an environment that was universally accessible to my community.

I did not expect our meeting to be held in the basement of Evans Hall, in a room that did not have an accessible door with seating that was inaccessible to a fellow coalition member. I didn’t know where our next meeting would be, and I had no idea where other disability-related student groups met.

This is why UC Berkeley needs a disability cultural space.

While the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, serves approximately 2,900 students with disabilities, its space acts solely as a compliance unit to provide academic accommodations and support. A recent survey conducted by DSP Director Karen Nielson shows that 74.3 percent of participating DSP students feel isolated from the larger disability community, and feel that a cultural space would foster a greater sense of belonging.

The growing need for this space led to myself and several other disabled students forming the Disabled Student Leaders Coalition. We have been working for close to two years to make this dream a reality, with pushback from the administration as the project progressed. The initial call for a space in spring 2018, a demand letter to Chancellor Christ coupled with a petition of community support, was well received. Vice Chancellor Oscar Dubon agreed to prioritize our request for space, and Chancellor Christ even wrote a letter of support. We ended the semester with high hopes, and an action plan to create a working group over the summer.

After four months of unacceptable radio silence from the administration, we then embarked on an eight-month roller coaster of bureaucracy. We stressed the need for a space with a variety of documentation and held multiple meetings with several different administrators, but it felt as if we were being pushed to the side. We were working overtime to follow the bureaucratic channels, but there were only four of us and it was starting to take its toll. One particularly frustrating experience occurred when we had requested a meeting with several administrators, who insisted upon having it in California Hall.

The building’s lift, an accessible way to enter the lobby, was broken and took 20 minutes total to operate. It was an irritating situation, but it further proved our need for a universally accessible community space. As disabled people, we are constantly dealing with inaccessible spaces. Even if a space is “compliant,” the accommodations provided are often isolating and inconvenient, such as the alternate entrance in California Hall. The combination of this experience and other frustrating interactions made it clear that we needed to hold the administration accountable throughout this process in order to prevent our demand from slipping through the cracks.

Time passed and we were able to see other organizations’ projects approved without having to deal with the bureaucratic hurdles we were facing. We finally were provided with guidance on submitting a building proposal to the Space Allocations and Capital Improvements Committee, but we were not allowed to be present during the committee meeting.

Although this process has been frustrating, it has shed light on the important yet rarely acknowledged ways that the disability community is dismissed and silenced. Disability activists  continue to do incredible work to fight for our rights, yet these efforts rarely make the front page. Disabled students at UC Berkeley make up one of the largest communities on campus, yet we still experience isolation. Our mantra “Nothing About Us Without Us” is the forefront of everything that we advocate for, yet we’re never allowed in the room where decisions about us are being made. UC Berkeley should not profit off of being the birthplace of the Disability Rights Movement when it makes its disabled students meet in the basement.

There have, however, been recent successes in our endeavor. Last week, the Space Allocations and Capital Improvements Committee finally agreed to create a subcommittee made up of administration and disabled students to work on the building process. The 30 disabled students, staff and faculty chanting in solidarity outside the building made our success possible.

The Space Allocations and Capital Improvements Committee’s offer of a subcommittee shows their responsiveness to our demands, but does not guarantee us a space. As disabled people, we must remain vigilant and make sure that the needs of our community are prioritized in the building process. We need to pressure the administration to support our vision, and follow through on our demand with concrete action. Disability must be seen as more than just a medical-based liability — it is an intersecting sociocultural identity that needs to be recognized and respected. Having a space to meet, house disability-related programs, host events and attend to our needs without shame will allow us to be unapologetically disabled in a space we can call home.

As we move to the next phase of receiving a cultural space, our community should be proud that our direct action changed the administration’s behavior toward students with disabilities. Our voices and bodies are now being seen, heard and recognized as one of many underrepresented groups on campus. Our recent media attention resulted in a swarm of emails in my inbox from individuals across our campus community: DSP students who aren’t receiving the support they need, disabled students who don’t know any other disabled students and even students from other schools asking for advocacy advice. Community members who have not previously been involved are speaking up because this space is too important to let slip through the cracks. Every disabled voice is important, especially as we start formulating our vision for what accommodations the space will offer. Let’s show UC Berkeley that our community was the true birthplace of the Disability Rights Movement by continuing to fight for this space together.

Alena Morales is a junior majoring in nutritional sciences and minoring in disability studies. She is the president of the Student Coalition for Disability Rights, the co-founder of Disabled Student Leaders Coalition and the co-leader of the charge for a disability cultural space.