On July 20, UC Berkeley’s disabled student population, along with the rest of the campus community, bid a reluctant farewell to Karen Nielson, the director of campus’s Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP.
Unfortunately, Nielson’s upsetting resignation didn’t come as a surprise for many others, considering the frequent DSP staff turnover in the past several years. In fact, the DSP program is currently experiencing a stressful staffing shortage since at least fall of last year.
In order to properly support our disabled students — a population containing many especially vulnerable to COVID-19 — campus should allocate more funding to the DSP program and prioritize providing this community with the resources it needs to succeed.
In fall 2021, DSP allegedly had just six specialists providing for more than 4000 students. While campus has been working to hire more staff — reaching 10 specialists today — the department may still lack the necessary resources to support as many students as possible. Its strain is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased the number of mental health problems and people with disabilities nationwide. Each specialist is handling caseloads of more than 400 students, a number that is likely even greater today.
Disabled students have long expressed allegations of difficulty finding proper support or accommodations within the program. Those allegations include having to wait months for intake requests and delayed DSP advisor reassignment when previous ones leave.
This unfortunate situation was demonstrated by an email sent by Nielson in November of last year, in which she encouraged disabled students to find temporary accommodations from faculty themselves due to the staffing shortages in DSP. The responsibility to find proper accommodations should not fall on the students with disabilities nor non-DSP staff, many of whom are likely unqualified to make appropriate decisions.
Campus has been working to alleviate the current understaffing issues that seem to be ubiquitous across higher education and disability services since the onset of the pandemic.
According to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, DSP has secured funding to increase the number of specialists to 16, and wait times to see a UHS counselor have been “significantly” reduced. These are modest improvements, but more should be done. Sixteen specialists tackling 4,000 students still means each specialist has a caseload of more than 250.
While campus works to hire more staff, it can also attempt to alleviate some of the current problems by promoting and expanding the peer counseling program. Disabled students should not be left to flounder because of shortcomings in our system.
As the next school year approaches, now is a time as good as any to improve the lives of both DSP staff and students. We must work to provide the disabled community with the resources they deserve and need for success.