Being Disempowered: The Politics of Direct Control

Illustration of a disempowered person of the disabled community
Kelsey Choe/Staff

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More often than not, gymnasiums and recreational facilities fail to make themselves accessible for disabled people. Such spaces do not cater to our needs, instead objectifying differences between us and our neurotypical and able-bodied peers. The Recreational Sports Facility (RSF) at UC Berkeley is one example of such a facility.

With a rich disability rights and independent living history, UC Berkeley and the RSF pride themselves on upholding and advancing accessibility for disabled people. However, as the co-Chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, I have repeatedly experienced our community’s core demands being deprioritized and unmet by campus administration and by the RSF.

In spring 2019, the RSF defunded the No Limits specialized personal training program, hardly providing any rationale for their decision. Their lack of transparency and hostile attitude toward student participation in restoring the program was the first sign for my colleagues and I that the RSF has never stood for accessibility. After a lot of disabled student leader activism, including spearheading an ASUC resolution condemning their actions, UC Berkeley and the RSF restored the personal training program through the Accessible Wellness and Empowerment (AWE) program. Our advocacy work for more RSF accessibility was further advanced by our relationship with the Inclusive Recreation Coordinator, Torre Meeks.

Meeks has been arguably successful due to his willingness to listen to our community’s needs and goals and to work with us in meeting them. For example, while Meeks pointed out that the RSF already has several recreation and fitness programs for the disabled community such as goalball and CalSTAR Yoga, he has expressed a desire for more student input to make the RSF more accessible. Since then, our working group has gauged student input on existing inclusive recreation and fitness programs and even recommended other necessary programming.

However, the RSF found ways to limit our progress with the Inclusive Recreation Coordinator toward our community goals by putting us through many structural limitations. For example, they temporarily laid off our Inclusive Recreation Coordinator until mid-September, taking away our community’s ability to advocate for accessibility. They have disempowered the disabled community at UC Berkeley despite students paying a fee to operate and to maintain the RSF. The RSF operates without considering the needs of all students, making our advocacy work increasingly difficult.

Also, our long-term plan to create a dedicated community fitness space — a safe space to call our own — was circumvented by the RSF asking our working group to gather support for this demand. They wanted proof that it “reflected the will of the whole disabled community.” This argument was frustrating, as we had informed them that constructing such a space was a crucial goal for our community-wide ASUC Disabled Students Commission. Yet despite our dissatisfaction with their response, we understood that conducting a survey would allow us to learn more about the constituents of our community, so we agreed.

Our goal with the survey was to gauge support for improvements regarding Inclusive Recreation programming, such as the long-term AWE program. However, the RSF once again intervened by substantially changing the survey’s content and its number of questions. The RSF only included questions that represented the “big things” the RSF has already done for the disabled community. The RSF also indirectly caused a low survey response rate by making us submit our survey through Qualtrics, a data analysis software used by the university, which prevented us from distributing it to our community. Thus, only 72 people responded to the survey, which is disappointing considering that the Berkeley disabled community is composed of thousands.

What’s more, we were unable to look into what those 72 respondents thought because the RSF claimed that the survey results were not statistically significant; we were also unable to use the data as evidence to achieve our goals because the survey results were not reflective of the disabled community. In addition, even though we clarified that we wanted to use the survey results in an aggregated way, we were vaguely told that we could not access the full and raw data because they did not want to publicly disclose student information.

This culture of disempowerment goes beyond the RSF’s relationship with the disabled community. The UC Berkeley administration and the UC system could support our Inclusive Recreation program, yet choose not to. Additionally, UC Berkeley does not allocate money for all students’ benefit. Instead, it overwhelmingly provides resources to Memorial Stadium’s frequent remodelings, hardly balancing this by providing more funding to student programs, especially to those helping marginalized students.

At UC Berkeley, our work goes unnoticed, unpaid and ignored. It is clear that institutions such as the RSF view students as revenue generators instead of as resource stakeholders. They will only truly work with us if students collectively assert direct control over them, meaning that we may have to create an ASUC referendum giving  students significant structural control over the RSF. No school administration should have the right to act without student input.

Carlos Vázquez is the co-Chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.