Defunding basic needs resources limits disability organizing of community spaces

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We are disabled student organizers who have collectively spent hundreds of hours advocating for UC Berkeley’s disability community over the last several years. Last week, we wrote about the Recreational Sports Facility’s closure of its No Limits program and the change in the Student Health Insurance Plan, or SHIP, which disproportionately raised costs for students with chronic illnesses. We pointed to the ironic fact that the day that the chancellor wrote about the campus commitment to the “equity of experience” for the disability community was the day the campus also defunded No Limits. This week, as we prep for a town hall meeting 6 p.m. Friday in 140 Barrows Hall, we want to equip the community with a broader recent history of the defunding of resources for the disability community.

It’s useful to examine these resources within the framework of basic needs. The Basic Needs Center works for “the food, housing, and economic security of our community” during a time of increasing privatization, gentrification, homelessness, student debt and food insecurity. The center supports students with CalFresh applications, nutritional education, tenants’ rights, financial aid and financial literacy. It provides services around these issues, offers individualized case management and conducts research on basic needs security. It also provides direct emergency intervention resources, such as the UC Berkeley Food Pantry and emergency housing. It centers this in a framework of justice and student empowerment, acknowledging the direct impact of these resources on people’s “mental-emotional-physical health, wellness, academic performance, professional development, and holistic success.” 

We appreciate and rely on the resources currently provided by the Basic Needs Center. By partnering with the center and other campus departments, we’re also trying to develop a more nuanced, intersectional approach to traditional basic needs, such as housing, food and financial security. We also need accessible housing, resources for independent living resources, financial support for increased medical costs and career resources to minimize disproportionate poverty rates within our community. At the same time, we also want to expand the discourse around what constitutes a basic need. For example, the benefits of accessible fitness for people with disabilities go beyond the feeling of “being in shape.” It is often a resource for managing symptoms (such as depression), preventing flare ups (such as chronic pain), and maintaining endurance and building strength for independent living. In this way, No Limits uniquely met low-income disabled students’ basic needs. 

This semester, the needs of disabled people briefly became the needs of a broader community when PG&E cut off power to the school and wildfires brought poor air quality to the area. Missing school or work was understood and social provisions were made. Yet it took advocacy by disabled students to get any contingency plans for those of us whose lives depend on electricity for power wheelchairs, breathing equipment — such as continuous positive airway pressure machines — and refrigeration for medication. It took added labor for students with airway issues to advocate for SHIP’s one free N95 mask — after medical necessity was confirmed by a SHIP provider, of course. Like other communities, we’ve experienced firsthand the ways in which the campus does not always provide for our basic needs.

These are just a couple of examples of the way that UC Berkeley seems to privatize, individuate and defund social provisions for basic needs. It tends to put those of us with visible disabilities on diversity websites or use the rising numbers of students enrolled in the Disabled Students’ Program to apply for funding that underserved our community. But why is representation increasing if essential basic needs services are being gutted or eliminated?

In her email, Christ wrote about UC Berkeley’s duty to ensure that “everyone can fully participate in and contribute to the university experience.” Although this isn’t all that she talks about, defunding essential resources often makes it feel as though our value is dependent on the contributions we can make (such as academically) without raising the bottom line.  This framework allows us to explain the apparent drop in representation on this campus of students with significant disabilities. 

Prior to fall 2014, UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Residence Program, or DSRP, had directly provided personal care to such students as residents of a disability-themed dorm. Per directions from its state funder in 2014, UC Berkeley abruptly changed this direct care model to a much slower bureaucratic model of helping students hire personal assistants through the state. The program retained its acronym and its original mission, which was to help students transition to independent living in the home, in school and on to employment. The program only survived for two years, however. In 2016, the campus closed this new version of DSRP, saying that it could not match state funding with a relatively small amount of money ($200,000). This was in spite of mass outrage, as indicated by a petition to the chancellor and UC Board of Regents that had gained more than 1,700 signatures.

What has replaced these services? A DSP-specific career counselor already existed at the time; a housing accessibility staff position is in the works through DSP; and a program called TRiO at DSP has offered some similar career readiness and independent living resources. But the budget cuts beg the question: What has been lost? The experience, graduation rates and economic prospects for current students the year that DSRP was finally cut were all affected. One of us was the only undergraduate chair-user to start at UC Berkeley this same year. When DSRP was in its seemingly most robust form, one of its participants noted that there were a few dozen chair-users who were a part of the Student Coalition for Disability Rights alone.

Working on these basic needs initiatives can sometimes drain student organizers. We’d love to focus on projects that empower and unify the larger community, such as our ongoing campaign demanding a disability cultural center, but most of our time is spent putting out fires. Disabled staff and faculty who are passionate about our work help as much as they can, but it appears that disability-related departments focus on legal compliance instead of identity-based enrichment. This causes student advocates to pick up the slack for free. Without a permanent space to meet, or institutional staff positions solely designed to uplift the sociocultural aspect of our identity, we are left to organize in ways that require more work than we have the capacity to do.

Combating these structural gaps calls for input from the entire disability community at UC Berkeley. If you’re a patron of the Recreational Sports Facility and feel like it’s not serving disabled students or other communities, check out and consider signing our petition. Again, our coalition will be holding a town hall meeting 6 p.m. Friday in 140 Barrows Hall, where folks can learn more about all of our initiatives, provide testimonies and learn how to get involved. We can resist trends that sometimes keep us separated, disempowered and scrambling to fund our own existence. But in order to do that, we must come together as a community and commit to collective action.

For updates, please visit Facebook via the event page or @DemandDisabilitySpace, where we will also livestream the event. Those who need accommodations can contact Alena Morales at [email protected].

Alena Morales is the Chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Committee and the Co-External President of the Student Coalition for Disability Rights (SCDR), studying Nutritional Sciences and Disability Studies.Josh Lavine is the Secretary of DSC and of SCDR, is double majoring in Sociology and Philosophy and minoring in Disability Studies.