On May 17, 2019, Chancellor Carol Christ sent a letter to the UC Berkeley community about “equity of experience for community members with disabilities.” In this letter, Christ talked about UC Berkeley’s duty to ensure that “everyone can fully participate in and contribute to the university experience.” Apparently, fitness and wellness don’t seem to be part of this experience, as this was the same day UC Berkeley stopped funding a personal training program for disabled students.
I, Josh, had started using this program in spring 2019 because of chronic pain that had become unmanageable. Since the onset of my disabilities almost eight years ago, cardiovascular exercise is one of the few things that provided significant relief to my pain, as well as the anxiety, depression, fatigue and brain fog that come along with it. I adapted to the pain I had from weight-bearing cardio activities like running by embracing biking and swimming. But over the years at UC Berkeley, my pain had drastically increased to the point that even these activities were too painful. My depression was severe, and I struggled to find relief.
My friend and co-author of this op-ed, Alena Morales, had suggested that I try out the No Limits program at the Recreational Sports Facility, or RSF. No Limits provided no-cost access to culturally and medically competent physical trainers for people with a wide range of health issues such as physical, mobility, psychiatric and sensory disabilities. It was astonishing that I’d been attending UC Berkeley and living with disabilities for five years without even having heard of this three-year-old program for disabled students. Because typing hurt too much, I verbally dictated an email to the program coordinators and got set up for weekly training for the rest of the spring. Over the course of that semester, the amount of pain relief, self-confidence and mental health improvements I experienced was a testament to the power of fitness programs tailored for disabled people.
Just as I was making progress, I heard the disturbing news that the No Limits program was getting defunded after three years of success stories for me and dozens of other disabled students. The program had been funded these last three years by the overwhelmingly student-supported Wellness Fund, which is paid for by UC Berkeley students to fund important programs for underserved and marginalized populations like the community. My experience with mental health and cognitive capacity demonstrates that these programs serve students who not only have wellness at stake, but also our academics, our social life and even life itself.
A summer of fruitless engagement with the senior management of the RSF to refund the program seemed to reveal structural ableism and a profit-model mentality that appears to be present in the RSF today. Despite its ability to earmark a grant from the Wellness Fund for those most in need — disabled, low-income, et cetera — the RSF seemingly chose to make these funds available to all students.
Fast forward to now. The No Limits program has been defunded for half a year and students have been facing the consequences on our physical and mental health. Already, systemic ableism on campus seemingly contributes to a much lower graduation rate for Disabled Students’ Program vs non-DSP students. If UC Berkeley does not support disabled students, it exacerbates our grim odds: In the United States, 21.2% of disabled people are in poverty, as opposed to 13.8% of non-disabled people, according to the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report.
Most people don’t conceptualize fitness, health, physical mobility and breathing as basic needs, so they don’t think about struggling to access them. For the disabled community, however, we are increasingly aware of our tenuous relationship with these basic needs efforts.
The basic needs movement at UC Berkeley has provided hope in a time of increasing privatization, gentrification, homelessness, student debt and food insecurity. According to its website, the Basic Needs Center recognizes the fact that “basic needs have a direct impact on the mental-emotional-physical health, wellness, academic performance, professional development, and holistic success of students.” The center opened a thriving food pantry and has conducted extensive research on the housing crisis. But the campus has failed to prompt a conversation about the distinct ways in which the basic needs of disabled students have not been met.
In fact, the broader policy and legal context consistently identifies disability issues as individual problems that need solving outside of the norm, often characterizing efforts to address them as charitable. For example, rather than creating spaces to fit the diversity of human forms, public spaces tend to be designed for non-disabled people and special accommodations are necessary for disabled people to access them. This default “norm” is reinforced by the “western ideals” of meritocracy and “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” Thus, the systemic barriers that prevent disabled people from participating in society are erased in a neoliberal emphasis on personal responsibility, which erases the negative impact of oppressive institutions in its path.
What does neoliberalism have to do with UC Berkeley and the unseen barriers many disabled students may face on campus? It connects the multiple forms of discrimination, seemingly exempting the campus from its apparent responsibilities.
For example, when the Student Health Insurance Plan changed its insurance carrier, its website initially noted that “most students will not experience a significant benefit changes when we make the switches.” The raises in prices went to medical specialty visits and hospitalizations. In this way, higher costs of living and barriers to accessing healthcare for disabled and chronically ill students seemingly affected the policy of the campus’s health plan and yet seemed to create another barrier for students to surmount.