Shutdown of Recreational Sports Facility’s No Limits program leaves disabled students with ‘new limits’

Calvin Tang/File

Related Posts

In May, the UC Berkeley Recreational Sports Facility declared its intention to shut down the No Limits, or NL, personal training program for disabled students because of a lack of funding.

Internal communications and documents obtained by The Daily Californian from two months after the program’s closure, however, indicate that the RSF did not request a continuation of the funding for the 2019-20 academic year.

In 2015, UC Berkeley students widely supported a ballot referendum that would institute a $146 semesterly wellness fee, now $174, which would fund health and wellness programs for marginalized populations through a Wellness Fund. One result of the Wellness Fund was the RSF’s launch of the NL program in December 2015, which provided unlimited one-on-one training for students with disabilities.

Since the shutdown of the NL program, advocates from the Student Coalition for Disability Rights, the ASUC Disabled Students Committee and the ASUC Student Advocate’s Office have followed up with RSF employees and campus administration to understand and determine future replacement programs.

Campus junior Lucy Eaton, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, used the NL program for two years, beginning in fall 2017. She was also diagnosed with scoliosis in 2018 and credits NL with helping stop its progression.

Eaton said in an email that Pilates-based exercises targeted specific skills, such as washing her hair and bending down to lift things, that people without disabilities may take for granted. Because every disability is unique and every person is different, Eaton said exercising with a disability is a nuanced activity.

“The loss of the No Limits program would mean the loss of one of the only programs on campus that actively improves the quality of life of people with permanent disabilities,” Eaton said in an email.

The NL webpage currently states it is doing everything in its power “to help the program stay alive.”

What happened to the No Limits program

On Sept. 25, 2018, Rachel Kahn, an NL trainer and co-founder of the No Limits Collaborative, which was later absorbed by the RSF, sent an email to the Wellness Initiative Fee Advisory Committee to ask if another grant could be submitted on behalf of the RSF to continue NL funding for the 2019-20 academic year. Kahn, aware of dwindling funds, had worked with NL since the program began.

The same day, Wellness Fund coordinator Shruthi Thatikunta responded to Kahn and said NL was more than welcome to apply for funding again, and her request would be considered.

“I pushed multiple times while working there for the RSF to promote this program more. … and no one ever followed through with it. I … was told the RSF would take care of it. After offering multiple times to help the RSF submit a proposal … I was told RSF management was submitting a proposal for No Limits. This was not accurate,” Kahn said in an email.

The Wellness Initiative Fee Advisory Committee received three grant applications from the RSF at this time, according to an email sent Aug. 5 from the committee’s chair Yongqi Gan to NL participant and students with disabilities advocate Joshua Lavine. The NL program was not included in this group.

“We do not have a funding request on record from the past year for the No Limits project,” Gan said in a prior email in the thread. “We did not receive a funding application in the fall and additional funds were not requested in the mid-year or end-of-year reports.”

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff confirmed that the RSF submitted three proposals to the Wellness Initiative Fee Advisory Committee in fall 2018 — Resume/Increase Sustainable Exercise program, or RISE, Rec Sports Nutrition Program and Res Hall Fitness Centers. The RSF also submitted a proposal to the Fitness and Wellness Opportunity Fund, or FWOF, in January 2019.

While the Rec Sports Nutrition Program and Res Hall Fitness Centers mainly entailed equipment and furnishing grants, according to Gan, the RISE program’s grant cited that its goal is to serve members of underserved populations, namely low-income students and students with disabilities. The RISE grant application also specified that people with long-term disabilities could participate in fitness activities that included informational workshops and small group classes at a rate that was 20% lower than those without disabilities.

Alastair Iles, associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management, is UC Berkeley’s first deaf faculty member. Iles said in an email that disabled students ideally need a range of targeted programs beyond academic accommodations, such as emotional well-being, physical exercise, financial counseling, tutoring and advocacy for engagement with campus institutions and systems.

“Is it going to be inclusive or not? It can’t be both — it must have a consistent approach,” Iles said in an email.

The Wellness Initiative Fee Advisory Committee did not approve funding for these programs over concerns about the cost and necessity for Res Hall Fitness Centers, given that other programs were available. The committee, however, approved funding for the FWOF proposal.

FWOF currently enables RSF to provide up to eight subsidized personal training sessions for students with disabilities, according to Ratliff.

Ratliff added that students may apply for fee offsets up to $100 for fee-based programs, including the “specialized personal training program” for students with disabilities, noting the FWOF hopes to serve 300 students this year.

“We are committed to working with students with disabilities and welcome the opportunity to help them apply for these fee offsets,” Ratliff said.

According to Gan, however, only a “small part” of FWOF accounted for students with disabilities.

“It doesn’t make sense to use the Fitness and Wellness Opportunity Fund to replace any other disabled students program because the FWOF provides $100 per request, and students were making use of thousands of dollars worth of services before,” Gan said.

On May 2, Lavine sent an email to RSF staff requesting that the RSF fund the NL program through the following budget year. In his email, Lavine said the loss of the program would disadvantage disabled students, particularly those who are low-income or significantly disabled.

“Eliminating No Limits will impose new limits on disabled students generally, and especially those who are significantly disabled, low-income, and/or otherwise multiply marginalized,” Lavine said in the email. “If the RSF’s rhetorical commitments to access, inclusion, and equity are empty, the Cal disability community will no doubt call attention to the further exclusion and marginalization of disabled students on this campus.”

Lavine said the $62,500 that the RSF would receive from the Wellness Initiative Fee Advisory Committee in the upcoming year is $12,500 more than what it had cost to pay NL’s personal trainers.

On May 3, Sue Noyes, the assistant director of Fitness & Wellness at the RSF, responded to Lavine in an email, where she said Torre Meeks, the inclusive recreation coordinator hired in fall 2018, was “working to identify and move forward with possible funding sources” for the continuation of a specialized training program similar to NL.

“I do want to report that discussions are ongoing to explore fundraising opportunities to pay for the continuation of the specialized personal training program,” Noyes wrote in the email to Lavine.

Around the same time, a petition in support of the NL program with about 300 responses circulated, with opinions ranging from disbelief to disappointment.

On May 17, the NL program shut down. The same day, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ issued a campuswide email about the importance of equity in terms of experience for disabled community members.

The Fitness and Wellness Opportunity Fund’s current status

Less than a month after NL shut down, a group of student and faculty advocates, disability-related staff and RSF staff gathered at an NL meeting. One of the goals of the meeting was to ensure that the NL program would “get funded and possibly expanded,” according to the meeting’s minutes.

The meeting began with a conversation about FWOF, approved by the Wellness Initiative Fee Advisory Committee in January, and a reflection on the NL program. Over three years, NL worked with 48 students and had 2,569 total hours of training.

Lavine argued that FWOF should fund NL because the initial proposal to the RSF allows it to determine where the funds go.

According to Lavine, the lack of specialization in FWOF could equate to no guaranteed funding for disabled students. Lavine added that students with disabilities could have to compete with all other students for these funds.

Fabrizio Mejia, assistant vice chancellor of student equity and success added that although FWOF is open to everyone, some students would need to be subsidized more than others. He added that “watering down” NL is inequity, as NL filled an access gap that exists because other RSF offerings were inaccessible.

Lavine, however, was told by University Health Services, or UHS, strategic initiatives manager Bene Gatzert in an email that the proposed changes by students — to reserve these FWOF funds for disability personal training and subsidies for low-income students — warranted the creation of an entirely new proposal for a future funding cycle.

A later email from interim director for Recreational Sports Brigitte Lossing called the proposed revisions “extensive” and something which would “fundamentally change the program as it was approved and funded by the Wellness Fund Committee.”

According to Ratliff, the approved FWOF was intended to allow the RSF to continue the specialized personal training program for students with disabilities and broaden the focus in order to provide services for more underserved students.

On July 16, the same group met for a second time. One of the topics of discussion was a revised version of FWOF, which among other changes, dropped the number of subsidized students from 300 to 200 for fall 2019. The revision also provided $31,250 for disabled students, reserving $20,000 for low-income students and could cover 40 students in total, in contrast to the roughly 50 students who were subsidized under NL.

RSF staff, however, expressed concern at this meeting that using the FWOF for specialized personal training would be “disingenuous” since the initial proposal could not reserve discretionary funds, according to the meeting minutes.

About 10 days after the meeting, Lavine accidentally received an email indicating that RSF staff did not support the specialization of the FWOF program.

“(T)here has been some push back from students, mainly Josh Lavine, about funding specialized personal training for students with disability. … As a reminder, the Rec Sports Opportunity Fund would give all students a chance to apply for funds to help with the cost of any of our programs. … Please do not worry about responding to this email or other emails from this individual,” read a July 30 email from Meeks to two students who sponsored the original bill.

A rebranded model: Inclusive Recreation Program

The RSF submitted a grant proposal Oct. 4 for the new Inclusive Recreation Program that, if approved, would include funds for subsidized personal training — formerly No Limits, according to Ratliff. Ratliff added that the RSF hopes to increase the number of personal sessions to 16 per academic year.

Gan said the Inclusive Recreation Program was more similar to NL than the current FWOF, according to the grant application submitted. The grant proposal requested $55,789 for the program.

“Based on the type of funding, this is extremely similar to the original No Limits program. They’re looking for inclusive recreation specialist … a basketball coach, and trainers and instructors with prices in line with initial No Limits program,” Gan said.

Disabled student advocates and groups, however, were wary of the RSF’s actions, since the NL program was shut down. Under FWOF, the RSF partnered with UHS for “consultation and recommendations,” according to Ratliff.

Lavine submitted a Wellness Fund grant proposal for spring 2020 through the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, for a program entitled the Accessible Wellness and Empowerment Program. This program would serve as a reiteration of NL, providing the same services but on a wider scale with increased funding.

Gan noted, however, that this request does not contain a departmental approval from Berkeley Rec Sports, which is required to run the program out of the RSF.

“We may be giving money to DSP, but if Rec Sports doesn’t give it space then money is just sitting and can’t be used,” Gan said.

Ratliff also said the RSF plans to submit new Wellness Fund proposals in spring 2020 for multiyear funding. The services could range from individual to group training, though most students historically participated in individual training. If future funding is approved, Ratliff said the RSF hopes to offer these options depending on “sufficient interest from students.”

The impact on students

Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz, a sixth-year doctoral candidate, developed physical disabilities and PTSD after surviving a fall from the third story of a building during the 2017 earthquakes in Mexico. He used the NL program for a year before it was shut down, to help with his limited mobility on his right foot and hip, in addition to his anxiety.

Aldape Muñoz added that he needs care beyond the insurance’s perspective of a basic recovery.

Through the NL program, Aldape Muñoz was able to obtain a trainer for free, which helped offset some of his health-related costs; after his near-death experience, Aldape Muñoz incurred close to $2 million in medical expenses. According to Aldape Muñoz, Kahn had the expertise to set up a tailored training program and never made him feel any less valued.

According to Aldape Muñoz, access to free and effective training programs for disabled and historically marginalized people is a social justice issue. As an LGBT domestic abuse survivor and formerly undocumented immigrant from a working-class family, Aldape Muñoz said he found advocates in this program who helped him thrive.

“Not continuing the NL program will make students feel isolated and alone,” Aldape Muñoz said in an email.

Campus alumna Carly Gibbs used the program in 2016. Gibbs, who has an orthopedic disability, uses a wheelchair and a manual walker for mobility. Her leg muscles require movement or they spasm and undergo atrophy, especially since she spends her days at work and school in a wheelchair.

Gibbs appreciated that NL was in a gym, rather than at a physical therapist’s office in a medical facility, pointing out that people with disabilities such as hers are not “sick” and should not have to go to a hospital to exercise.

“Bring back the no limits program for those of us … who do not have the luxury of walking into the gym, having a session with a personal trainer, and having them understand exactly what we need,” Gibbs said in an email. “I am very disappointed that at UC Berkeley, with its rich history embedded in the disability rights movement, the health needs of students with disabilities are not a higher priority.”

Contact Amanda Bradford, Alexandra Casey and Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Recreational Sports Facility did not request funding for the 2018-19 academic year. In fact, it was the 2019-20 academic year.