Community memory is essential to disability justice

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The ASUC Disabled Students Ad Hoc Committee, or DSC, was established as an ASUC commission Oct. 14. The commission aims to uphold the intersectional disability justice values and advocacy of its parental grassroots organizations, as well as the rich history of students with disabilities paving the way for independent living at UC Berkeley. It feels surreal, as seniors, to look back and see how our community has grown and gained traction in the ASUC and the larger UC Berkeley community.

Prior to creating the DSC, we both advocated as members of the Student Coalition for Disability Rights, or SCDR. SCDR — formerly known as the Disabled Students’ Union, or DSU — descends from the Rolling Quads, a group of students with disabilities in the 1960s who helped catalyze the independent living movement.

In the years after the Rolling Quads and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, disability activists worked tirelessly to advocate through organizations for resources going beyond ADA compliance. DSU then became an official Registered Student Organization on the UC Berkeley campus and was renamed SCDR in 2016 as a method of recruitment. 

In 2018, Alena, along with Katie Savin, Jillian Free and Nidhi Chandra, created the Disabled Student Leaders Coalition in direct response to the community’s unanimous call for a disability cultural space — a dream that had been envisioned and fought for several times over the years. The coalition then funneled its membership into the DSC to gain a larger platform for the space campaign.

In successfully fighting for a cultural space as well as a refunding of a personal training program, originally called No Limits, our group took action to sustain essential programs and form a consciousness as a community of disabled students with a history on this campus. Part of uncovering that history was the painful realization that the defunding of another program in 2016, the Disabled Students’ Readiness Program, or DSRP, led to a dwindling number of enrolled students with disabilities and DSU membership.

DSRP functioned as an independent living program that provided an extensive amount of support for students who are blind or have physical disabilities to be able to live away from home. It paved the way for disabled student development programs across the nation to acknowledge independent living resources as a facet of academic success.

In driving away some of the most visible members of our community, the defunding of DSRP led to a crisis of disability identity and community on campus over the last several years. Since then, just a few small groups of dedicated students — as well as faculty and staff with disabilities — have been bearing the labor of creating basic access for one another on this campus, often against the actions and inactions of administrators. 

UC Berkeley’s decision not to pay the $200,000 annual cost to maintain the program — a drop in the bucket compared to the UC system’s funding as a whole — harkens back to a 1962 UC Berkeley dean’s initial rejection of Ed Roberts on account that “we’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.”

But just like the fierce disability activists who opened the door to Roberts and other students with significant disabilities, we don’t take no for an answer. Our group comes from an incredible line of folks who have paved the way to get us what we have now, and we plan to spend this year “passing the torch” to disability advocates to come. 

From this legacy, we draw strength from the resilient activists who came before us, who crawled up the stairs of the Capitol and endured monthlong sit-ins, who had to pull teeth to ask for something as simple as a curb ramp, who continue to fight back against forced institutionalization and sterilization, because our mere existence requires resistance, time and time again.

Today, what once felt like an advocacy pipe dream has become a feasible reality: reviving the DSRP, our current big campaign. In our struggles over the years, we recognize how isolating it has been not to have participated in the program. Like so many DSRP alumni, however, we have found accessible and affordable housing in the Berkeley Student Cooperative. While the organization definitely needs to prioritize disability justice and accessibility — in education, culture and structure — we believe it has the capacity to do so while also remaining financially accessible to low-income students with significant disabilities. 

In the co-ops, we hope to create a home for a revived DSRP, with apartments providing a glimpse into independent living and houses providing an integrated community. We are currently engaging multiple stakeholders and organizations to make this partnership politically viable, and we graciously welcome support in this process. Campus administration must also step up and provide the necessary financial backing, as it has no excuse for failing to address the lapse in funding for the last four years.

We both graduate this year, and we hope that this permanent fixture in the ASUC will make it easier for future advocates to continue fighting for students with disabilities on campus. 

With that, we dedicate this love letter to all the crips and allies we’ve had the pleasure to be in solidarity with. Katie Savin, Anna Bernick, Carlos Vasquez, Tasneem Khan, Emma Adler, Nate Tilton, Caroline Petterson, Brian Liu, Liam Will, Hari Srinivasan, Stephanie Chang, Nava Bearson and Kaylie Moropoulos: We are honored and grateful to have worked alongside such fierce advocates as you. Ben Perez, Ella Callow, Karen Nakamura, Karen Nielson, Georgina Kleege, Derek Coates and more: Your advice has been invaluable to our work, and we idolize you as crip successes in the adult world!

Through it all, we’ve developed genuine relationships out of building one another up, struggling collectively, taking disability studies classes and just plain hanging out. We’ve found community in a place where it seems at every step that others want to deny it to us. And by being authentically ourselves — voicing and upholding access needs, laughing about neurotypical and able-bodied ignorance and discovering the unique perspectives that we bring to our communities — we have formed a shared identity of empowerment. We hope to bring more students with disabilities not only into the commission but also into the community that students with disabilities have lovingly created for and with one another.

Programs such as DSRP can help us envision the world we want to live in. It is imperative to our work that we continue to come together as a community and advocate for our essential rights, our independent living needs and our position as a sociocultural identity. 

Alena Morales is a UC Berkeley senior studying nutritional sciences and disability studies and is the interim chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission. Josh Lavine is a UC Berkeley senior studying sociology, philosophy and disability studies and is the secretary of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission. The commission can be found on Facebook at @DSCBerkeley.