At one time, there were dozens of wheelchair users on campus, said campus senior Alena Morales. By the time she got into UC Berkeley in 2016, she said she was the only wheelchair user admitted into undergraduate studies that year.
Morales attributes the decline in admissions of wheelchair users and students with significant physical disabilities to the closure of the Disabled Students’ Residence Program, or DSRP, in 2014. Chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, Morales is working to bring the program back, hoping to partner with the Berkeley Student Cooperative, or BSC.
“What we want to foster at the core of this program is to make sure students have this ability to feel empowered on all spaces on campus, not just in the classroom,” Morales said.
The DSRP, a residential program fully funded by the California Department of Rehabilitation, or DOR, provided direct personal care to campus students with significant mobility disabilities living in the residence halls, according to Josh Lavine, campus senior and ASUC Disabled Students Commission secretary.
The program served 15 campus students but closed in 2014 when the DOR changed its funding model, opting to no longer fund residential programs outside of the regional independent living centers run by the state, said Karen Nielson, director of the campus Disabled Students’ Program, in an email.
Morales said forming a new DSRP program will help students with disabilities create a home environment where they can foster a community, gain independent living skills and navigate the additional barriers that go into living with a disability in college.
“It’s vitally important to have community in your home, especially because the larger UC Berkeley community is very pressed by academia, which has this very elitist and competitive vibe to it that sees disability as a disadvantage,” Morales said. “It’s important to not only advocate for a different vibe on campus but also to make sure that disabled students have a place where they can go at the end of the day and feel comfortable being disabled.”
The new DSRP should be more “cross-disability oriented,” according to Morales, with resources for students with autism, non-physical disabilities and chronic illnesses.
The ASUC Disabled Students Commission is looking to internal campus sources to finance the DSRP program because, according to Lavine, it is unlikely the program will be funded by the DOR as it was in the past.
Tommy Chung, BSC president, said in an email she is supportive of BSC housing the DSRP program and believes the BSC Board can begin work on the project by spring of 2021. Chung describes cooperatives as an “ideal place” for disabled students to live, noting all BSC buildings comply with Americans with Disabilities Act access guidelines and that the organization is working to create a culture of anti-ableism and anti-oppression.
Morales hopes hosting the program in the student cooperatives will make it more affordable for DSRP residents.
“While the world outside of the BSC is violently ableist, the co-op can and should be providing the least ableist community possible for our disabled residents,” Chung said in an email.
In order to restore the DSRP, Chung believes the BSC needs to find external funding as the cooperatives are facing budget constraints due to reduced occupancy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The DSRP is one aspect of a larger push to create resources on campus for disabled students. Morales added that the ASUC Disabled Students Commission also wants to create socials for students with disabilities and DeCal classes to further help disabled students learn independent living skills.
“If you have a disability, it encompasses all points of your life, so there should be a resource for all points of your life,” Morales said.
Morales added that co-ops are also good opportunities for students because they offer inclusive environments to other marginalized communities, including those that identify as people of color or LGBTQ+.
According to Morales, although UC Berkeley students contributed to the disability rights movement in the 1960s, the legacy of the movement has suffered as programs including the Recreational Sports Facility’s No Limits program and DSRP have been cut in recent years.
“Disabled people contribute tons of knowledge and perseverance and value to the university that they wouldn’t be able to replicate because no one else understands the experience of having a disability,” Morales said. “It’s unfortunate that we are put on the back burner when our labor, time and knowledge are just as valuable as those who have institutional power.”