Amy Arreaga didn’t find it hard to navigate the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, at UC Berkeley, because in community college, they had little success with DSP accommodations.
For Arreaga, it felt good to advocate for their needs—but as an incoming transfer aware of the work they would need to put in to schedule testing in order to get the proper documentation to receive disability accommodations, they were ahead in a game that many students with no prior experience didn’t even know they’d have to play.
Although accommodations can make academic life much easier for disabled students, the process of receiving them often does not.
“I felt lost, and there was a deep distrust in the university because we’ve been told that the university was going to be there for us, and seeing that our institutions and resources that we have are taking so long to get, it’s just not a good feeling,” said sophomore Lila Wijaya. “I understand that UC Berkeley is doing its best considering the amount of students that they have, but they definitely should find a way to probably speed up the process some way or another.”
DSP is a campus service in which disabled students can receive accommodations in order to achieve their academic goals, and level the playing field with their peers.
Wijaya worked through Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, for a month to receive a diagnosis, then had to wait for her intake appointment with DSP, a process that took two months.
It took from the beginning of August to November to finally receive accommodations.
The stress of long wait times is reflected in the Student Advocate’s Office, or SAO, Fall 2022 Disability Accountability project. Originally meant to hold professors accountable for refusing to uphold DSP accommodations, in reflection of their casework, the project switched gears to assisting students with navigating obtaining accommodations in the first place, and directing students to where to go when they’re not met.
Martha Velasquez, the interim executive director of DSP, noted that DSP is actively working with campus HR and a recruitment team to fill vacant positions to improve the long wait times to receive accommodations.
Velasquez noted that DSP is short staffed, with five out of 15 DSP Specialist positions vacant, and vacancies in the Accessible Formats and Captioning unit. However, she said in an email that they are making “significant” headway on hiring new staff, with all five DSP Specialist positions accepted by candidates who will begin training in February.
“Our DSP staff are working incredibly hard to handle the influx of students,” Velasquez said in an email. “Managers and supervisors are carrying large caseloads to help alleviate the increase in requests.”
The DSP website notes that DSP saw an 86% increase in students from 2015 to 2020 and expect a continuing increase every year.
Wijaya recommends doing what Arreaga and freshman Alan Aguilar did — start in the summer. For Aguilar, an intake appointment was available within two weeks. The process was also made easier by already having medical documentation of his disability, something he noted that others had to go “far” out of their way for.
The structure DSP has in place to intake students is “solid,” Arreaga noted. It’s just not communicated to students, a sentiment that Aguilar shares. Both believe DSP can improve by making their services, like drop-in office hours, better known to the student body.
“I have so many conversations with people about DSP, and they’re like, ‘That’s all I had to do?’” Aguilar said. “I wish this info was made more available in terms of accommodations you can seek, and what you can seek accommodations for. It’s unknown to a lot of people. Before going to Cal, I didn’t know until someone told me about it.”
Arreaga also pointed out that the reason students who need accommodations don’t access them is because for an already disabled person, going through the work of obtaining specialized doctors for a diagnosis is a lot of work, especially when “you have to go through 15 different links on the DSP site to find everything.”
Ultimately, in spite of the work required to receive them, Arreaga believes DSP accommodations are worth it for the students who think they may need them.
“It served me really well to own my own experiences as a disabled person, and knowing that I can do the same things, I just need a little more time to walk around in the sun and think about it before I do it,” Arreaga said. “I feel like for me it’s helped me feel like I can succeed at this big scary institution as best as I can and not just struggle the whole way through.”