UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program can be source of frustration for students with disabilities

Photo of UC Berkeley campus
Sunny Shen/File
UC Berkeley junior Tabitha Bell was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy as a child. Bell said she has not been entirely satisfied with her experience on campus, as she has run into problems with class accessibility, contacting Disabled Students’ Program administrators and getting handicapped-accessible parking.

Related Posts

When a UC Berkeley student walked into the campus Disabled Students’ Program office hoping to get accommodations for his diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he had reason to think he was going to get them; his twin brother with the same diagnosis had four months prior secured an accommodation, giving him flexibility on deadlines.

The student, who wished to remain nameless due to fear of discrimination, said he was surprised when, after arriving at the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, office with his psychiatrist’s letter of recommendation, he was told he could not get the deadline flexibility accommodation.

“The accommodations I received were priority enrollment and extended test-taking time,” he said. “The way my disability usually manifests is difficulty with managing deadlines, so the accommodations that really would have been helpful would have been flexibility with homework deadlines.”

As part of the campus Division of Equity and Inclusion, DSP provides services such as accommodations and support to students with documented disabilities. It also works with faculty and staff to make the shared learning environment more accessible, according to its website.

DSP conducts outreach to students at campus events and is open for student drop-ins, according to Karen Nielson, executive director of DSP. It provides a wide range of programs and tools, from classroom accommodations and learning assistance to assistive technology and career services. The process for obtaining accommodations is not different for physical or mental disabilities, she added.

Campus junior Tabitha Bell was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy as a child; her service dog helped her walk on her own, but finding a high school that would accommodate the dog was a challenge, she said. When she visited UC Berkeley, she met with Ben Perez, DSP’s campus access specialist, and concluded that this was the school for her.

Bell said her disability specialist Julie Greene has been a great ally. Disability specialists are tasked with helping students contact faculty and determine which accommodations students qualify for, according to the DSP website. In the case of the student with ADHD, for example, he said his disability specialist approved provisional accommodations for him when his medications were causing side effects.

However, Bell said she has not been entirely satisfied with her experience on campus, as she has run into problems with class accessibility, contacting DSP administrators and getting handicapped-accessible parking.

“The campus has gotten a little bit inaccessible for me,” Bell said.

Both students said some problems with DSP lie with its unclear bureaucracy and lack of support. In response, Nielson said the program has made several changes to improve its services in the past four years.

“At the moment we have some vacant staff positions and we are moving to fill those as soon as possible to make sure we are readily available to students,” Nielson said in an email. “We are always seeking to improve and make our services more student service oriented.”

Some students with disabilities, however, said DSP can be a source of frustration. The process of obtaining and employing accommodations can be confusing and lacking in transparency, some said.

The student with ADHD said working without the accommodations he feels are necessary has brought his grades down significantly.

He added that to get his accommodations, he went to DSP with his psychiatrist’s evaluation and signed up to speak with a disabilities specialist. He said he is not sure why his accommodations differed from his twin brother’s.

“Invisible disabilities are inherently difficult to accommodate for transparently because you have to deal with a lot of case-by-case basis,” he said.

Contact David Villani at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @davidvillani7.