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Students with disabilities battle inaccessibility and isolation

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This is a map showing locations on campus that pose challenges to accessibility: Dwinelle Annex and Hall, Hearst Field Annex, East Asian Library, Faculty Glade, Hearst Mining Circle and Evans Hall.


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DECEMBER 03, 2015

As a mechanical engineering student, Drew McPherson came to UC Berkeley expecting complex problems, but navigating Cory Hall wasn’t one of them.

Cory Hall sits at the northeastern corner of campus, near Hearst Mining Circle. The area is the campus’s engineering hub — a labyrinth of stairs and hidden elevators built on a steep gradient. But campus modifications that help most students can instead set up new obstacles for McPherson, who uses a motorized wheelchair.

On a recent rainy day, he tried to get into the elevator in the Cory basement through a back entrance, near the building’s juncture with Davis and Sutardja Dai halls. No luck — the basement was locked because of construction. Flyers taped to the doors mapped out an alternate route.

The locked basement meant rerouting to a different elevator, going back past the long line of trash bins and taking a narrow balcony path before finally entering Cory. Then, encountering a delay when the first elevator to come up is packed with people.

Though the route may seem roundabout, McPherson said that at least it is better than it was — he said a friend who graduated from UC Berkeley a few years ago couldn’t get into this part of campus at all.

The campus has expanded accessibility in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and requirements imposed after lawsuits. The ADA creates a minimum standard of accessibility to accommodate people with a wide variety of disabilities but does not necessarily guarantee that individuals can easily access a space.

Barriers for students with physical disabilities, however, can often lie less in building plans, which are picked over for potential inaccessibility, than in barriers of the moment — rearranged desks and residence hall furniture, restroom garbage cans or crowds of people moving along confined walkways, many not looking out for individuals in wheelchairs.

Peter De Silva / Daily Californian Archives
Peter De Silva / Daily Californian Archives

And though the campus has come a long way with physical accessibility, particularly in recent years, students, staff and faculty will often choose inaccessible locations for group meetings, which inadvertently excludes students with physical disabilities.

Despite positive history, a recent struggle

Berkeley is often regarded as the home of the disability rights movement, particularly a major subset, the independent living movement. The famous disability rights activist Ed Roberts attended UC Berkeley despite administrative pushback. He would go on to help pioneer Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living, which is still headquartered in the city.

Despite this positive reputation, UC Berkeley students have sued the campus twice over the past two decades over issues with inaccessibility. Most recently, students with limited vision sued the campus in 2013 for its failure to provide sufficient alternative media. In 1997, students with visual and physical disabilities filed Gustafson v. the Regents of the University of California, a comprehensive class action lawsuit. The lawsuit was settled in 2005, establishing a panel of experts to review campus accessibility. The lawsuits resulted in a positive shift in terms of accessibility on campus, said Desiree Robedeaux, co-president of the Disabled Students Union. Gustafson v. UC Berkeley pushed the campus to focus more on physical accessibility, according to Jeremy White, the senior program manager of architectural access on campus.

The settlement led to changes in the campus shuttle systems, signage and emergency evacuation procedures, and to the creation of a weekday on-call golf cart service.

“That we have these lawsuits is an indication of the spirit of activism, as well as (that) Berkeley needs to get with the program and comply with the law,” said Marsha Saxton, who teaches in the disability studies department. “I am mostly proud that we have had these lawsuits and they have been won. Too bad that the powers that be didn’t immediately settle and recognize that the students would win.”

Gradients and upgrades

Lower Sproul is the campus’s largest development in recent years, and along with the newly built Eshleman Hall and renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, it includes a new permanent ramp.

“The idea is to create an atmosphere that fosters independent living, so to get (students with disabilities) into their classroom as easily as possible is the goal,” White said. “But there are challenges topographically — there are pinch points and areas that are very steep. They built a huge campus on a big hill.”

The campus has slightly graded down one notorious slope — near Memorial Glade and North Gate, next to the East Asian Library — and added an elevator.  But several campus paths, such as those passing through Faculty Glade, remain obstacles for students with disabilities.

“We’ve been trying to conquer the hilliness for quite some time,” said campus real estate spokesperson Christine Shaff.

Rachael Garner / Senior Staff
Rachael Garner / Senior Staff

Getting across campus involves building up a working knowledge of paths to take, elevators to use and which hills are just impassable. The steep terrain can stymie not only wheelchair users, placing wear and tear on wheelchairs, but those whose disabilities hinder — but do not completely prevent — walking.

While even the oldest building on campus, South Hall, is now wheelchair accessible, problems remain; until recently, students such as McPherson could access Wheeler Hall only by using the back entrance, through the basement. Students with physical disabilities at UC Berkeley routinely face issues navigating paths and buildings on campus, even though those facilities square up to provisions laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Paths and entrances designed specifically to accommodate disabled students can present a collateral problem: isolation from other students.

“I’ve had several times I’ve gone with people and then it’s just like, ‘Well, all right, I’ll meet you in 10 minutes because I have to go all the way down by Sproul or all the way up by the tennis courts,’ ” McPherson said of the flight of stairs near the Hearst Annex buildings onto Bancroft Way.

Code-compliant but inaccessible

Third-year transfer student and Bay Area native Olivia Davis has noticed a pattern in her classes, where she sits at the table specifically marked for students in the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP. Others, she said, tend to give her a wide berth.

“I’ll sit there, and the auditorium will be full to the brim, and no one will sit next to me,” Davis said. “A lot of people are afraid of interacting with us because maybe they’re afraid they’re going to say something offensive, or maybe they just don’t know what to say.”

Ben Perez is a member of the campus’s Coordinating Committee for the Removal of Architectural Barriers, which reviews incoming building plans. He said that those plans may be technically accessible but that they are not necessarily functionally so.

“Is the building code-compliant? I’m certain it is. Is it also functionally usable for people with disabilities? — which is a very different question,” said Perez, who is also the disability access specialist for the DSP. “The law is meant to be a bare-minimum standard, and we strive for something significantly more.”

For example, a chemistry lab may have a fume hood, but if it’s on the opposite end of a long room, that may prove difficult for a student in a wheelchair.

Perez connects students to the DSP’s map of navigable routes through campus and personally guides some new students. But the DSP is primarily for those students needing academic modifications, such as more time to take tests or scribes to write down their dictation. That means that a student with a physical disability could graduate from UC Berkeley without ever entering the DSP offices, making outreach difficult.

Missing the mark

“A lot of people are afraid of interacting with us because maybe they’re afraid they’re going to say something offensive, or maybe they just don’t know what to say.”

– Olivia Davis, third-year transfer student

In 2013, the campus conducted a climate survey of students, staff and faculty. The survey revealed not only significant disparities between different groups’ experiences on campus but discrepancies between how those groups viewed one another’s experiences.

One section of the survey dealt primarily with physical locations on campus, asking respondents whether spaces such as dining halls, art studios and housing were accessible and to what degree. In 11 out of 17 listed campus spaces, either a plurality or majority of those surveyed simply responded, “I don’t know.”

But two categories, “Bathrooms” and “Paths,” had a plurality of respondents saying they were “fully accessible.” In interviews, however, those were two areas identified as frequently inaccessible by students who actually had mobility issues. Perez said that ignorance on the part of students and staff members means they often accidentally stand in the way or place items that physically block the path of students with disabilities. For example, staff trying to be helpful may place trash cans to hold open doors, which actually impedes students in wheelchairs from entering.

“Just for anyone, I think it’s a challenge to get through Sproul when there’s a lot of people, and it’s just an added challenge if you’re lower than where people are looking,” McPherson said. “They don’t see you, can’t hear you, don’t move out of the way, and then you just get stuck.”

Lack of awareness can stretch outside the confines of campus, from Greek houses to co-ops. Groups may meet off-campus, in inaccessible locations, inhibiting who can make the effort to join. Others’ ignorance prevents students with disabilities from accessing some spaces, which, in turn, renders members unaware that students with disabilities want to join the group.

“You don’t always get that proactive member who’s going to let you know that they need something,” Robedeaux said.

McPherson said he made a “medium effort” to participate in group hangouts during his first year on campus when he lived in the residence halls.

“But between doors not being accessible or propped, or furniture being in the way — just the physical space between being able to participate in social settings was a significant barrier,” he said.

Drew McPherson Photo: Rachael Garner / Senior Staff
Drew McPherson
Photo: Rachael Garner / Senior Staff

In the 2013 campus survey, students with disabilities also ranked fourth among campus social groups that reported feeling excluded on campus within the year prior to taking the survey, after Native American/Alaska Native, genderqueer/transgender and African American students.

Feeling excluded also correlated with whether students in a certain group wanted to continue studying at UC Berkeley. Out of all undergraduate students, 14 percent had seriously considered leaving UC Berkeley. For students with disabilities, the percentage was double. While many factors are at play, physical exclusion can have a significant impact.

“Most people who are not close to disabled people or who do not have disability themselves just forget. … People don’t notice that the venue that was chosen excludes, unintentionally, people with mobility impairment,” Saxton said. “When you’re a disabled person, you are acutely aware that you just get forgotten. And that has a huge impact on your sense of inclusion.”

Saxton, whose classes attract students with disabilities themselves, has struggled with rooms failing to meet the needs of not only her students who use wheelchairs but herself; Saxton walks with a limp. Once, she was assigned an auditorium-style classroom in the basement of Moffitt Library. Students in wheelchairs were kept at the back, and Saxton, who uses small groups, found it difficult to connect those students to others in the classroom and to take the time to reach them with her own disability.

Outside her own classroom, she hears her students complain of professors who treat academic accommodations for students registered through the DSP as a “special favor.”

“It’s not just a favor to them, it’s not just a nice thing for them. … It’s for everyone to learn from what (a student with a disability) has to say,” Saxton said. “It’s not about special favors — it’s about the law. It’s a civil rights protection. … It’s about human rights. It’s about our entire society (embracing) full inclusion for everyone.”

The bigger picture

Routine experiences of isolation can develop into a larger sense of marginalization, according to students.

“There is a very big stigma in the social and academic realms regarding disability,” Robedeaux said.

Davis is part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative system. Being a member of the housing cooperative requires workshift hours, and Davis sometimes fills them by doing co-op office work. Davis said that once, she overheard a manager discussing with another person what either one of them would do if they needed other people to assist them.

“They said, ‘If I ever get to the point where I have to rely on someone to help me with using the bathroom or to get dressed, I just don’t want to live anymore. I would rather just die.’ And I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘I have to rely on that,’ ” Davis said. “Saying that type of thing, people don’t often think how that’s going to affect a person.”

Davis has seen her friend group go from nondisabled in high school to almost entirely made up of disabled people in college.

“When you’re a disabled person, you are acutely aware that you just get forgotten. And that has a huge impact on your sense of inclusion.”

– Marsha Saxton, teacher in the disability studies department

Students frequently assume that students with physical disabilities also have a mental disability, making for an awkward start to college social interactions. But McPherson uses a proactive approach in the face of such assumptions — if not out of empathy then out of social necessity.

“You have to spend a lot of energy to force yourself into those positions, to break those barriers yourself, or else you stay there, and you remain isolated,” McPherson said.

Finding their own paths

Campus groups still face difficulty in reaching out to and serving students. The Disabled Students’ Readiness Program grew out of the Disabled Students’ Residence Program, a unique campus program that helped students find attendants who could help them bathe, dress and feed themselves, depending on the needs of the student. Now the program focuses on professional skills but still leads workshops on managing attendants, a position that students likened to a second job.

“The real problem is getting students to show up to any of the things that we do,” said Disabled Students’ Readiness Program coordinator Kevin Shields. “We’ll have stuff going on all the time, but there will be zero people there.”

Some students with disabilities simply find their own routes, an attitude that can extend to advocating for themselves when other barriers arise on campus. Robedeaux was the disability liaison to the ASUC for two years. Davis is the director of the sex-positive panel “Are Cripples Screwed?,” which answers students’ questions about sex and disability. A new organization, Berkeley Disabled Students, headed by transfer student Lisa Albertson, is pushing for more efficient academic accommodations on campus.

Students with disabilities, particularly students with physical disabilities, continue to push boundaries in the tradition of previous students.

McPherson helped establish EnableTech, a campus organization that helps match students who need “assistive technologies,” including movable prostheses, with those who want to design and create those machines. He is making do in his mechanical engineering lab with a table-top mill that was donated by a different lab, while pushing staff and faculty to spend money on new equipment he can use.

“That’s a lot to ask for one student, but maybe in the future, there’ll be other students,” McPherson said.

Anna Sturla covers student life. Contact her at [email protected].

MARCH 07, 2016