‘You’ll find your people’: UC Berkeley sees increased registration of students with disabilities

Infographic displaying the number of students registered with the Disabled Students' Program over the past 8 years
Nada Lamie/Staff

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In alignment with this year’s admission of the most ethnically diverse class in more than 30 years, one of the largest minority groups on UC Berkeley’s campus, namely students with disabilities, has also seen an increase in admission rates.

As a group that encompasses many identities and backgrounds, students with disabilities registered with the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, made up 12% of the student population in 2019, according to DSP’s annual report. This represents a 24% increase from the previous school year and, overall, is part of an upward trend in DSP student registration during the past eight years.

The choice of whether or not to register as a student with a disability comes after students have been admitted to UC Berkeley. According to Karen Nielson, DSP director, this is because campus is not permitted to ask disability-related questions on the application, a reality that Alena Morales, chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, views as a double-edged sword.

“It’s kind of a tough position- I want there to be better resources for students to request DSP accommodations even at the admissions level,” Morales said in an email. “However, I know that it can be tough to disclose disability to an academic institution because of all of the ableism that is prevalent in academia.”

Morales added that students with disabilities are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in state-funded programs such as universities.

Academic ableism, however, is “very much present” on campus and may deter students from disclosing their disability on an application, even if given the opportunity, out of fear of association with ableist stereotypes, according to Morales.

“Knowing what resources are out there and what they are entitled to is vital for disabled students to feel empowered from Day 1,” Morales said in an email. “There needs to be more explicit resources and language placed on the UC application that will facilitate this.”

Although Morales said there may be a lack of available resources on the UC system’s application, according to Nielson, DSP has worked to increase resources for campus students, an effort reflected by the growing number of students who register with DSP each year, of which there are currently about 3,550.

Nielson added that DSP holds an annual orientation program and conducts regular outreach both before and after admissions.

As the campus population of students with disabilities has nearly doubled in size over the past four years, hiring enough staff to serve students in a timely and effective manner has been difficult, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Nielson.

Beyond DSP, there are other student organizations committed to empowering students with disabilities and ensuring their voices are heard. The ASUC Disabled Students Commission, in particular, is working on various projects with this goal in mind, according to Morales.

These projects involve the admission and retention of Black, Indigenous and people of color with disabilities, the revival of the Disabled Students’ Residence Program and a disabled alumni mentorship program to reach out to high schools and facilitate admission for students with disabilities, according to Morales.

An important aspect of the commission is building a unified community, according to Morales. It is because of this community that Tasneem Khan, a commission member who joined in the spring, encourages any hesitant students to apply to UC Berkeley.

“I’d say do it because when I was applying to Berkeley I didn’t really know that much about my disability, and it was kind of through some of the groups on this campus that I was able to figure that out a little bit more,” Khan said. “There’s a lot of communities on campus, and you’ll find your people here.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.