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UC Berkeley is failing its disabled students

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JANUARY 24, 2023

Starting at a new school comes with challenges and transferring schools comes with its own different challenges. Doing all of this while being debilitated by a chronic pain condition that you don’t have a diagnosis for — or understanding of — is an extreme challenge, to say the least. But, it’s what I had to do when I transferred to UC Berkeley.

I reached out to the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, asking for help and counseling when all of this began. As someone who previously never dealt with disability services, I had no idea what to do. 

After calling DSP consistently, what I got back was an email with a meeting time in a week. I kept the meeting and waited for the call, eager for any advice on how to move forward. When I got on the call, it was clear they had not read my email. They just assigned me someone to explain what DSP can offer me after I fill out an intake form, which would require a significant amount of time and energy I sorely lacked. I was told I could get no help until then. I cried, defeated for a bit, and then started my journey to get a DSP form filled out by a doctor. 

To fill out the form which legitimized my suffering in the eyes of the university, I needed a diagnosis. It takes time and money to go to doctors, especially specialists. Having an invisible disability means that oftentimes people won’t believe you or believe the severity of your pain, doubling the time it takes to get diagnosed. 

After a few weeks, and a lot of help from my family, I found a doctor and received the diagnosis I needed to fill out the intake form. After submitting it, I was told I would have to wait a month for my official appointment. This meant another month where I would have no help from the school.

During that month, I got in contact with all of my professors and reluctantly detailed my disabling condition because I had to coordinate workarounds and extensions. Even though they were all helpful and courteous, in many cases I was still penalized for late assignments and absences. I had nothing to prevent this since I had no DSP accommodations and therefore my professors could lower my grade for absence. I was often too tired to continually contest my grades.

If I had a professor that was not-so-accommodating, what then? Truthfully, my grades didn’t suffer too badly. I was still able to get work done and do readings and assignments, but I had no energy or physical ability to get to my classes in person. I had been told that I should consider taking time off of school, but the reality is, I will never be able to attend school in a “normal” way again. What would be the point of putting it off?

I love learning, and I love class. I just need help figuring out how to be a student in a sustainable way that won’t cause my health to deteriorate. I know this school has the ability to make programs accessible as the creative solutions seemed endless during the pandemic when all schools were forced to create ample virtual methods during the lockdown to keep their students enrolled. 

When I finally was seen and talked to, I was given some accommodation but nothing extraordinarily helpful or different from what I had worked out with my professors. When I requested a beanbag that would have allowed me to attend classes in comfort this semester, I was told a hard no, and it was suggested that I could purchase my own and carry one with me to class if I needed it. 

During this period of immense stress in my life coupled with my physical struggles, I have felt cut off from UC Berkeley, any sense of community and my peers. It’s ironic to me that DSP, which couldn’t seem to help me in a timely manner, had ample time to have a speaker series on disability rights and boast about its great services. As a result, my mental health is suffering along with the health of my body.

UC Berkeley seems fully unaware of how ridiculous it looks when it brags about all of its DSP services all while denying its students access to services they need to be healthy and functioning students. I don’t need a speaker series — I need comprehensive care.

It is important to note — and infuriating to think about — that I am still luckier than many. I had help from friends and family. There are many DSP students who have to deal with the same bureaucracy with double the issues and half the help. UC Berkeley needs to listen to its students and start practicing what they preach.

I don’t know if this article will change anything about DSP. Maybe it won’t, but I want to add this to the record to keep UC Berkeley accountable. Campus cannot benefit from the goodness of its students and professors who champion disability rights, yet still neglect the disabled students in need.

Clara Seely-Katz is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JANUARY 24, 2023