UC Berkeley students share challenges, successes with remote Disabled Students’ Program

Photo of DSP Building
Gisselle Reyes/Staff
According to Karen Nielson, executive director of UC Berkeley's Disabled Students' Program, or DSP, the abrupt switch to online education was challenging, but DSP has not changed its service model and continues to provide all of its services remotely.

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UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program was one of several campus programs that transitioned to online services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the change has resulted in challenges for many.

Now, 3,600 Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, students are meeting with their counselors remotely, according to Karen Nielson, executive director of DSP. She said in an email that the abrupt switch to online education was challenging, but DSP has not changed its service model and continues to provide all of its services remotely.

“We have learned a lot in a short amount of time,” Nielson said in an email. “We as DSP are doing everything we can to make sure that students get timely accommodations and services to support their success in the online environment.”

Remote instruction has not come without challenges, students in the program said.

Campus senior Delaney Marchant said updating her letter, which DSP students give to professors as an official notice of what accommodations they need, on her own at the beginning of the semester was more challenging than in normal semesters when she met with a counselor in person.

“Sometimes, there’s accommodations that I forget I need or didn’t think I needed,” Marchant said. “The DSP counselor would have known.”

For campus graduate student Nate Tilton, a major concern is that the accommodations he receives, including “time and a half” on exams and a quiet, private exam environment, are not conducive to at-home learning.

He added that as a student-parent with disabilities, his “time and a half” and quiet environments are often interrupted by his children, who are also in school, and he said the accommodation for exams should be extended to twice the amount of time during remote learning.

“Basically, we’ve been doing the same type of socializing and schooling for the last 200 years,” Tilton said. “Now, we’re teaching on a new medium and not changing anything we’re doing.”

Additionally, Tilton said he has not received a note taker, which is one of his accommodations, for any of his classes.

Tilton attributed the lack of note takers to the high general stress levels of all UC Berkeley students.

“(Getting a note taker) kind of went out the window because Cal students are so pushed to the edge right now where they can’t even take on extra stuff,” Tilton said. “Being a note taker for someone else is a lot right now.”

Nielson added that getting live and media captioning for students in DSP has been another challenge the program has faced. She said this was caused by longer wait times with outside companies and technology issues resulting from UC Berkeley’s enhanced security features on Zoom.

According to Nielson, DSP has fulfilled students’ live, synchronous captioning needs but still has wait times for asynchronous video captioning.

Despite the challenges, DSP has also had successes this semester, and many students praised the program.

Campus senior AnDrea Crawford, Tilton and Marchant all said their professors have mostly been accommodating their needs, and Crawford and Marchant said the DSP counselors have been communicative and reachable.

Crawford attributed part of her positive experience to Nielson, who stepped in and helped her find a new counselor after her first counselor was not the right fit for her.

“When you finally get somebody to listen, they do listen,” Crawford said.

According to Nielson, in preparation for the spring semester, DSP hopes to hire more people to improve the program’s responsiveness to students, grow its pre-college outreach programs and develop the Disability Cultural Center, which was gained through student advocacy.

Marchant also hopes the program will learn more about professors’ different online teaching methods. She said DSP should then update its accommodations to better fulfill students’ new needs because DSP students tend to adapt to changes in teaching at a slower pace.

“We need to change. We’ve been teaching the same way for so long. It’s not just disabled students that are being harmed, it’s all students,” Tilton said. “It’s stressing people out in an already stressful time.”

Marchant said she still sees a silver lining in remote learning, despite the challenges. For Marchant, the remote semester is a chance for everyone to reconsider accessibility in higher education.

“People are facing things that DSP students face every day — feeling stressed about keeping up, proving that you’re sick, proving that you need some time off,” Marchant said. “It’s making us question in the future moving forward: How can we make higher education accessible?”

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.