‘We have a lot to contribute’: UC Berkeley student advocates talk accessibility, disability

From left to right: Alena Morales, Katie Savin

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UC Berkeley student advocates Katie Savin and Alena Morales recently reflected on their work and progress toward making campus accessible and welcoming for students with disabilities.

Savin, previously a medical social worker in San Francisco, is a member of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission and a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley. Morales is a campus senior and the interim chair of the commission. Campaigns spearheaded by the commission over the past few years have included a disability cultural center, funding for inclusive programming at the Recreational Sports Facility and a co-pays fund for students with disabilities.

Morales joined the Disabled Students’ Union during her freshman year, and the program eventually became known as the Student Coalition for Disability Rights. Then, along with Savin, Morales created the Disabled Student Leaders Coalition. In May 2019, both groups were absorbed into the ASUC Disabled Students Commission.

“A lot of the organizing was, in some ways, a survival mechanism for me; I really struggled in my program with basic access needs and constant microaggressions,” Savin said. “The opportunity to spend time with other disabled students, faculty and staff has always been really healing.”

While she did not come to UC Berkeley with the intention of centering her work on disability, Savin said “architectural and attitudinal” barriers to education pushed her to join several organizing efforts on campus.

Savin said she worked on the campaign for the Disability Cultural Center with Morales for three to four years before it was approved for a space in the Hearst Field Annex this past summer.

Alongside the campaign for the cultural center, according to Savin, there was also a more subtle effort to help others on campus expand their definition of diversity to include disabilities.

“A lot of our work has been trying to emphasize that we’re not just lawsuits waiting to happen,” Savin said. “We have a lot to contribute.”

Savin has encountered multiple challenges on campus, including some buildings not having door openers — which led to permanent shoulder damage — and her first GSI position being held in a room only accessible via stairs.

Despite this, she said part of what made her stay was her own stubbornness and a desire to pave a path for students with disabilities after seeing others drop out.

“There needs to be a culture shift among a lot of faculty and in the school,” Savin said. “Access isn’t an afterthought but the foundation of where we start.”

Similarly, Morales noted the importance of community and support from those with related experiences.

“It’s important to build support from people that have similar experiences as you and people you can find community with in the face of academic ableism and in the face of this environment that is systematically designed to boot you out,” Morales said.

As a high school student, Morales learned about Ed Roberts and the disability rights movement at UC Berkeley and felt pride in that history. Considering that reputation, she said, she expected campus to be accessible, but she found that was not always the case.

Morales said she was “disheartened” by the challenges she and other students with disabilities faced and began advocating during her freshman year after joining the Disabled Students’ Union.

“I remember missing class and flyering hours a day and spending all of my time to just get one other person in there,” Morales said.

The ASUC Disabled Students Commission now has about six consistent members, according to Morales. Each person on the commission spearheads a campaign; examples include a campaign for students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and a campaign for students who are BIPOC.

Morales added that it is not necessarily the specific medical situations that create connections among students with disabilities; rather, shared experiences of ableism and barriers to access bond the disability community.

“My disability is one of the reasons why I am bringing something to this university,” Morales said. “Because of my disability I have these opportunities, and I have gained resilience and strength from advocating and acknowledging those that came before me.”

Moving forward, Savin and Morales both noted that there needs to be more emphasis on recruitment and retention for students with disabilities.

There should also be more staff dedicated to the community, Savin said. Currently, the students in the ASUC Disabled Students Commission are performing unpaid labor by showing up at meetings to represent the disability community. This level of investment and work, Savin added, is not sustainable for most involved.

Savin, who is currently working on her dissertation regarding the social and economic impact on people who receive social security disability benefits in the Bay Area, further noted the importance of including people who have experienced disabilities as part of research projects.

Morales said she hopes to change the culture surrounding academic pressures in STEM for students with disabilities through a campaign the commission is launching soon.

Additionally, Morales noted the collaborative efforts each campaign has undertaken, with students, staff and alumni with disabilities assisting.

“That’s one thing that’s beautiful: Your advocacy doesn’t stop once you graduate,” Morales said. “That just attests to all the great disabled staff and faculty and alumni that have helped us and are equally as passionate.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.