‘You don’t look disabled’: UC Berkeley students with disabilities grapple with being seen, understood

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Update 2/7/2022: This article has been updated to include information from ASUC AAVP James Weichert and Academic Senate chair Ronald Cohen.

“Feel better soon,” said one UC Berkeley professor to campus School of Social Welfare graduate student Rosa Enriquez upon discussing her disability.

Amid the flurry of hellos and farewells exchanged by students and instructors are a general unawareness and misconception about disability, according to Enriquez.

Crossing visual boundaries, disability can be everywhere or nowhere without anyone knowing it, and no two disabilities are the same. During her time as a Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, specialist from 2012-14, Hahva Gallagher worked closely with students with invisible disabilities, which are often neurological and therefore not physically apparent.

She recounted professors questioning whether students’ accommodations were necessary, forcing her to step in as an advocate.

“I definitely had to do some psychoeducation for professors about psychological disabilities. A lot of people don’t want to recognize that someone who’s depressed might need an accommodation,” Gallagher said. “I can’t imagine that students are getting what they need.”

Disability training for campus faculty, staff

The notion of “you don’t look disabled,” Gallagher said, will take a long time to go away.

Despite the potential lack of awareness surrounding disabilities, academic ableism training for faculty and staff to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities is not mandated across the UC system. Instead, campus instructors are encouraged to take DSP’s online disability training, according to a campuswide email sent Jan. 11.

While DSP has discussed adopting mandatory training for faculty with the Academic Senate chair every year, the proposition has not been adopted, according to DSP executive director Karen Nielson.

In several meetings with the Senate last year, ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert said he proposed implementing mandatory faculty training on disability, but the idea was not moved forward.

“It’s incredibly disappointing and at the same time not that surprising,” Enriquez said.

Academic Senate Chair Ronald Cohen said in an email, however, that there has been no “formal request” to consider mandating such training since he assumed his role in August 2020.

A formal request and conversation seeking counsel are distinct, Cohen noted. Upon inquiry from Weichert, Cohen said he believes there is more interest among faculty for individual training in pedagogy as opposed to a one-size fits all video.

“Just because we hear the word no doesn’t mean the need for disability training becomes any less dire,” Weichert said. “I am always open to having an open dialogue that leads to mutual understanding, but that has to start by talking about the issue and accepting the premise that doing nothing is unacceptable.”

Beyond students with disabilities, faculty and staff may also identify as disabled, and Enriquez said embedding ableism training in campus policy could foster a more inclusive environment.

It would be one step toward unlearning some of the dominant discriminant narratives in academia, Enriquez added. If implemented, the training must be continually revised to reflect students’ evolving needs, she noted.

“Academic ableism is a serious issue that is clearly erasing disabled students from spaces of learning,” Enriquez said. “I really really hope that the University of California Office of the President — UCOP — would make a decision to mandate that.”

UCOP spokesperson Joanna McWilliams did not address the lack of mandatory training but noted that UC policy prohibits excluding people with disabilities from campus activities. The university, she added, listens to its students to improve accessibility and support.

A dance between students and professors: Providing accommodations without documentation

On Nov. 8, Nielson and director of the Disability Access and Compliance office Ella Callow sent an email that disheartened many.

In the throes of accommodation delays resulting from severe staff shortages in DSP, Nielson and Callow asked students waiting for intake appointments to reach out to instructors on their own in order to find a temporary solution. From professors, they asked for “understanding and assistance,” the letter reads.

“The letter is very problematic. They’re now putting the responsibility on the student to notify the faculty member to accommodate them when the faculty still don’t know what to do, nor are they qualified to engage in the interactive process,” said Lisa Albertson, founder of the disability activist group Berkeley Disabled Students. “That’s DSP’s job.”

Sharing Albertson’s sentiment, Khodamorad Moradpour, co-chair and historian of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, or DSC, added that DSP accommodation letters act as a “wake-up call” for instructors to provide the necessary support for students with disabilities.

Ableism is very pervasive on campus, ASUC Senator and registered DSP student Amanda Hill alleged, so placing the onus on students to advocate for themselves is taxing. They further alleged that some professors refuse to accommodate students with accommodation letters out of disbelief.

“They act like our disabilities are a burden on them,” Hill alleged.

A GSI for a large course in campus’s School of Public Health, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, noted that many instructors do everything in their power to accommodate students. However, in cases when students clearly need accommodations but lack documentation, professors are left empty-handed with no guidance on how to proceed.

When left at the discretion of instructors, granting accommodations opens up a trove of inequities as people can be more or less lenient, the GSI said. Instructors are also not trained on how to work with students without accommodation letters, she said.

This past fall semester, students approached the GSI after their first exam, gripped by anxiety as they couldn’t finish the test on time. Many had tried to receive accommodations from DSP but were still waiting to hear back, she said.

By the time the last exam rolled around, many students still unable to receive accommodations failed the class, the GSI added.

“It takes a great deal of courage to seek accommodations,” said campus anthropology professor Laurie Wilkie in an email. “It is so very frustrating when students and faculty cannot get access to the resources and tools that allow EVERYONE to get the most out of their time at Berkeley.”

Navigating the built and social environment 

Strolling through campus can be arduous for some students with disabilities.

Teaching in a brand new building, the anonymous GSI alleged numerous features of the structure are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. After months of waiting, a campus compliance officer confirmed the violations, she said.

“We were told everything would be dealt with in a very timely manner,” the GSI alleged. “We never heard from them again.”

While venturing through public spaces presents physical challenges for some living with a disability, society has also sprung a web of social norms that corrodes public life. Discrimination, disrespect and threats of violence were cited by students at a DSC town hall meeting as common incidents overshadowing their time on campus.

Over the last three years, UC Berkeley has not had any lawsuits or Office for Civil Rights investigations pertaining to disability, according to Callow, who is also UC Berkeley’s chief ADA Section 504 compliance officer.

“We handle business as well as we can for the people we’re committed to on this campus,” Callow said at the town hall.

According to William Carter, campus political geography graduate student and project director for the Graduate Assembly Disabled Students Advocacy Project, the mere utterance of the word disability scares people on campus. Many run straight to DSP, Carter added, ultimately escaping their duty to self-educate and increasing DSP’s workload.

While most civil rights are prohibitive, disability rhetoric tends to be prescriptive: “You must do this,” Carter said, echoing words he heard from Callow. As a result, students asking for accommodations are perceived as needy.

“Very often, I’m not fighting for something that would help my needs,” Carter said at the town hall. “I’m fighting for a level of minimum liability.”

Having to advocate for himself during the fall, a pursuit that has taken at least 10 hours a week, campus graduate student in the School of Public Health Oliver Stabbe said during the town hall that faculty have gotten to know him only for his disability.

He added asking for accommodations can create contentious relationships between students and faculty, and this friction inhibits equal treatment in the classroom.

“Advocacy affects how faculty view students in their class,” Stabbe said at the town hall.

Beyond disability, Carter noted the issue is intersectional. Students with disabilities who are marginalized based on their sexuality, ethnicity, race, gender or cultures are perceived as not only needy, but a threat, he said.

As students settle into their daily routines and find solace in the prospect of in-person instruction, a classmate is itching with discomfort knowing their life could become less accessible.

They are in the trenches of the disability fight, a battle many say is unceasing.

“It’s gonna be hard to make change without a community raising our collective beliefs. They call it the birth of the disability community with Ed Roberts, but Ed Roberts didn’t do it alone. He had the whole community coming together,” Enriquez said. “For those of us who feel comfortable, self-disclosing and trying to take up space … is incredibly important.”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly used she/her pronouns for Hill. In fact, Hill uses they/them pronouns.