UC Berkeley organizations continue support for students with disabilities remotely

Photo of Alena Morales
Alena Morales/Courtesy
Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has stalled development for UC Berkeley’s disability cultural center, organizations such as the ASUC Disabled Students Commission and Berkeley Disabled Students are continuing to advocate for students with disabilities.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic persists and remote learning continues, campus organizations have been working to remotely support students with disabilities and plan for their return to campus.

Organizations such as the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, or DSC, and Berkeley Disabled Students, or BDS, have been working to stay connected with members of the campus community who have disabilities, provide needed resources and plan for the future. Though the opening of the campus’s disability cultural center has been delayed by the pandemic, groups such as the DSC are taking steps to prepare for its eventual opening. 

“We’re trying to just really make sure that the DSP (Disabled Students’ Program) population doesn’t fall through the cracks as things are opening back up and additional risks are being thrown into the equation of what’s going on,” said DSC interim chair Alena Morales.

According to Morales, many people with disabilities are immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk during the pandemic. The DSC has been making a point of advocating for people with disabilities within the larger community so they do not become an “afterthought,” Morales added.

The DSC also has members participating in UC Berkeley’s planning effort for reintroducing people to campus in an attempt to make sure the needs of students with disabilities are being taken into account.

During the early stages of the pandemic, the DSC made the decision to significantly relax its policies and rules around membership, according to Morales.

“We’ve made it a lot more flexible, but I think it has allowed us to further drive in our disability justice principles of allowing accommodation in all situations,” Morales said.

Katie Savin, a DSC member, said the transition to meeting virtually has made things easier for some by removing access barriers associated with meeting in person. Savin added that the commission has been using this time to focus on expanding access to programs and providing resources needed at this time. 

The DSC has also been working to build its community virtually through the Signal messaging app, Savin added.

According to BDS founder Lisa Albertson, the campus advocacy group has also been trying to maintain a social media presence. In addition to participating in the campus’s online student orientation at the start of the school year, BDS has also been planning to host presentations around accommodation and accessibility issues, Albertson said. 

Morales said the development of campus’s disability cultural center, which was approved last semester and originally scheduled to open this fall, has been disrupted by the pandemic.

“The disability community has a lot of culture and a lot to contribute from a diversity perspective,” Savin said. “Having this space is a step closer to shifting the legal and economic deficit-based framework the disabled community is often viewed in.”

According to Morales, although the pandemic has delayed the opening of the center, the DSC is using this time to plan for the modifications it wants to make to the space, and the group has a virtual walk-through scheduled to see what work can be done in the meantime. 

Plans for the disability cultural center include food stations, couches, a service dog management station and outlets for wheelchairs and other medical devices, according to Morales. There will be a shared kitchen where people can store refrigerated medications, which the DSC would like to modify for more wheelchair accessibility, Morales added. 

The DSC is also planning for a soundproof room where students who are hard of hearing can listen to music and people on the autism spectrum can practice disability management techniques in private, according to Morales. It would also serve as a quiet space for napping and unwinding from a long day. Plans for more accessible technology and Braille books are also in the works.

Other programs planned for the space, such as a disability justice book club, have already started up virtually, Morales said.

According to Savin, despite the delay, the “long, frustrating, arduous process” of getting the Disability Cultural Center approved has paid off. The space represents both a shift in campus culture and the power of the disabled community, Savin said.

“Being isolated and barred from spaces and access barriers are a form of separating disabled people from the larger society in a way to further isolate them and ostracize them,” Morales said. “So to have (the disability cultural center) is really going to be an affirmation of disability as an identity, not just this medical liability.”

Contact Katia Pokotylo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katiapokotylo_.