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Students with disabilities must be valued, not just tolerated

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OCTOBER 26, 2023

Students in the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, were notified on Sept. 14 that the DSP portal, AIM, was temporarily down. About a month later, students were informed that morning drop-in hours for Oct. 20 and Oct. 24 for the DSP office were canceled.

These incidents may seem few, but they provide a glimpse into the reality faced by students with disabilities on campus — a reality riddled with problems in receiving basic services to succeed. 

DSP at UC Berkeley intends to serve the campus community by removing educational barriers, providing equally accessible learning and championing an environment of inclusivity. 

At least, that is what the program should be doing. 

According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, DSP serves 4,058 undergraduate and 815 graduate students, or about 9% of the overall student population. There shouldn’t be continual concerns raised about students being able to access accommodations or see them translated into the academic setting.

However, we see and hear about complications happening in two major instances: in the classroom and in DSP itself. 

In February 2023, there were five vacant DSP specialist positions out of the 15 specialist positions that exist. Students have complained that they are often switched between one specialist to another due to the lack of specialist retention. As of press time, there still is only an interim director for the entire program.

When vacant positions exist and retention rates remain low, the problem is not necessarily with the specialists or DSP staff themselves — it is a problem with campus and its ability to prioritize a program that helps people with disabilities. 

The number of students who need accommodations for disabilities has only increased. But how are students supposed to trust a program to provide them with necessary accommodations when the program cannot guarantee the personnel to do so?

We call on UC Berkeley leaders to make funding DSP a matter at the forefront of campus initiatives. When 15 specialists have to take on numerous caseloads, it’s only natural to expect high turnover and limited attention available per student. To increase the number of positions and ensure their occupancy, campus must provide more financial support. 

However, even if more staff and better distribution of services help decrease the barriers to establishing accommodations through DSP, there still exists a second prong to the problem of disability accommodations on campus. 

In class, students have reported professors and GSIs not abiding by the accommodations outlined in letters of accommodations sent by DSP specialists. This puts students with disabilities at risk for being marked down for participation even if they have accommodations for absences or tardiness, or even leads to assignments being wrongfully counted as late when students have arranged for extensions to turn in their work. 

For cases where students may need less distraction for testing settings, professors and GSIs have also had to find allocated spaces or ask students to take exams in different buildings than where their classes occur. This change in routine can present a lack of consideration for students who may have mobility issues. 

Furthermore, if professors and GSIs receive any training on how to handle accommodations properly, it doesn’t show across the board. The cherry-picking of when to take accommodations into account and when to disregard them reflects both a lack of instruction on how teachers should implement DSP requirements and the absence of a clear disciplinary response that students feel they can pursue when this occurs.  

Campus administrators once again need to mandate training and offer better resources, so professors and GSIs know going into class how to honor the accommodations that DSP students already spent time and energy establishing. 

To put this into perspective, we need only look at the extensive process that students with disabilities go through for others to respect their circumstances. To acquire accommodations, DSP students must first submit an online application that includes medical documentation — a process that often must be reviewed by supervisors of specialists. They then have to secure an appointment with the program, vying for time in competition with the other 9% of the student population. This often leads to requests for more medical documentation, further delaying the process. Students often navigate these requests while juggling classes that have already begun and management of their health or medical conditions. 

These requests can take months to receive a response — even if students start before the academic year, they still risk being far behind their nondisabled peers. 

If and when accommodations are established, students then have to request new letters for accommodation each semester to be sent out to instructors. The frequent switch-ups in DSP specialists create further burden on students to reiterate their accommodation needs every time they meet a new specialist. 

If UC Berkeley wants to claim inclusivity in what it preaches, then it needs to reconsider how it follows through with its practices. Simply filling specialist positions that should already be occupied or offering students the ability to file accommodation-related complaints is by no means enough.  

And given that students have to go through all these steps to receive accommodations, campus and faculty can take more initiative and make the DSP process less onerous by securing funding, providing effective training and solidifying next steps when accommodations are not met. 

The aforementioned cancellation of DSP drop-in hours and the portal being temporarily down now seem like only the tip of a far greater iceberg. Students with disabilities should not have to wait anymore to feel like they can stay afloat.

Veronica Roseborough recused herself from this editorial due to a conflict of interest with our news department.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by Adriana Temprano. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

OCTOBER 26, 2023