UC Berkeley students struggle to gain wheelchair accessibility in campus classrooms

Photo of a classroom with table for students with disabilities facing the wall
Nick Quinlan/Staff
Students with wheelchairs are frustrated by the campus's allegedly poor accommodations for wheelchair-friendly desks in classrooms, which are allegedly often placed in corners away from other students and with low visibility to whiteboards.

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UC Berkeley students usually share concerns about schedules, waitlists and grading bins on the first day of the semester. However, campus senior Hannah Bailey was more concerned with finding a desk to accommodate her wheelchair.

“Every time I roll into a classroom, it feels like the university is saying I’m not wanted,” Bailey said. “When you arrive on the first day of class and realize there isn’t a place for you, you just have to sit in the aisle feeling like all of the eyes in the classroom are on you.”

Bailey, who majors in theater and performance studies and is minoring in disability studies, chose to attend UC Berkeley despite hearing rumors of its allegedly poor accommodations for students with disabilities.

To her surprise, classrooms she has been in lack accessible desks for students who use wheelchairs, which was a sharp departure from her experience in community college, according to Bailey. Instead, students are required to request desks one to two weeks in advance through the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, she said.

According to Karen Nielson, executive director of DSP, students requesting accessible furniture work directly with disability specialists who implement services to help students with disabilities.

“While we can lay out what we build into the institution to accommodate disabled people, we are continually creating other accommodations on a case-by-case basis,” said Ella Callow, director of the Office of Disability Access and Compliance, in an email.

Callow added that the specialists are required by law to individualize accommodations addressing different needs, circumstances and goals.

However, Bailey said that in her experience, the desks given to DSP students are often placed against the corners of classrooms, from where the whiteboard is often not visible nor are other students seated nearby. Despite her weekly complaints to DSP, the desks are regularly moved back to these positions, Bailey alleged. 

“Any time I’ve brought it up, there’s a collective sigh and nothing happens,” Bailey said. “There are decades of students saying this is an issue and it’s not being fixed.”

Bailey said DSP specialists have a high turnover rate, adding that she herself had been through three specialists in the past year and a half. She acknowledged that while she had received much-needed support from the theater studies department, the burden of communication falls on the student.

At the moment, DSP provides students with assistance for accessible media, American Sign Language services, note-taking services, accessible classroom furniture, lab assistants and more, according to the DSP website.

“We are already providing a broad range of accommodations and supports,” Callow said in the email. “What we want to see is the State, Regents and campus funding common good resources in light of the increasing number of disabled people on campus.”

Kavya Gupta is the lead race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.