Quick Take:

A coalition is calling for the University of California to give disabled students more support and a say in pandemic-era learning plans. COVID-19 has sparked conversations about ableism and best practices for accommodating students, especially as campuses return to in-person classes.

With colleges around California reopening, students might be checking to see where their classes are, tracing paths to lecture halls that can span campus. At UCLA, those paths usually cross one of the campus’s defining landmarks: Janss Steps, three flights of brick-lined stairs up a hillside.

To UCLA senior Quinn O’Connor, who has a chronic illness that prevents her from walking long distances, the steep steps define the campus’s inaccessibility. While other students could take the most intuitive routes to class, she said, she has to chart a path that won’t drain her before even starting lectures.

“Campus tour guides will take you through all these iconic structures, but having them be the picture of UCLA is such a symbol that it wasn’t built for disabled people,” said O’Connor, who co-founded the Disabled Students Union at UCLA last year.

The organization is part of an acceleration in advocacy for the rights of disabled students at UC given the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act last year and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A new coalition, UC Access Now, launched in July 2020 with a set of demands — the Demandifesto — calling for the UC to treat the landmark accessibility law as a floor, not a ceiling.

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked conversations about ableism and best practices for accommodating students, especially as campuses return to in-person classes.

The Demandifesto’s authors call on UC to incorporate accessible design into all aspects of the university, including how classes are delivered. They also want the university to collect more centralized data on disabled students, hire disabled people to help figure out how to combat ableism on campus, train faculty in ADA compliance, and build cultural centers where disabled people can find community.

A report from UC’s Office of the President to the university’s board of regents last year made some of the same recommendations, noting that the growing population of disabled students in the UC had lower graduation rates and levels of satisfaction compared to their abled counterparts.

But progress has been slow: A Disability Cultural Center set to open at UC Berkeley — the first of its kind in the UC system — was delayed due to the pandemic. Disabled Student Program director Karen Nielson said via email that the program has hired a coordinator to focus on the center’s opening, and that she hoped it would open in January 2022.

UC spokesperson Ryan King said the university had set up a working group including policy experts, legal counsel and administrators to conduct another review of the needs of the university’s disability resource centers this fall. That would be followed by another working group that would include disabled students and faculty, he said.

Back on campus

Meanwhile, advocates say that disabled students should have a greater say in the balance of in-person and online classes that the university offers.

UC Berkeley student Liza Mamedov-Turchinsky has chronic fatigue syndrome and said the university’s return to mostly in-person learning this fall posed a dilemma: They could go to class, risking their health, or withdraw for the semester, losing their health insurance and further delaying their graduation.

“I feel that the UC is holding me hostage in a situation where I have to choose my health over my education,” they said.

UC classes swiftly moved online when the pandemic hit in spring 2020 — a development some disabled activists said was ironic given how hard it had been for students with disabilities to gain access to remote classes in the past.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice found that UC Berkeley violated the ADA due to the inaccessibility of its public educational content across multiple platforms. Some videos, the DOJ found, didn’t provide ways to access visual information. Some documents weren’t properly formatted for screen readers.

The campus removed more than 20,000 files from those platforms, saying it wanted to allocate its limited financial resources to its currently enrolled students and that making public content accessible would cost too much.

The past year of online learning revealed that disabled students in California are not a monolith and have varying needs. For Megan Gibson, a Sacramento State student with Autism Spectrum Disorder, remote classes provided both flexibility and comfort.

“I’m not worrying about being watched, and it’s not always that it’s a bad thing, but I feel like I can relax a bit,” she said. “I have the option to turn my camera off at times.”

But UC Santa Cruz student David Shevelev, who also has ASD, struggled to focus without being physically in the classroom.

“If you’re in a class where there’s a quiz, as long as you go to the class, you’ll always take the quiz,” he said. “But at least on two occasions, I’ve sat down to do an assignment — then an hour and a half later, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I just missed a quiz.’”

Disability specialists, who help students manage these challenges, are stretched thin at a number of campuses, according to a separate report submitted to the regents by the UC Disability Ad Hoc Committee. The ratio of students to disability specialists at UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis was more than twice the recommended caseload endorsed by the Association on Higher Education and Disability, the report found.

Another student organization — Justice, Accessibility and Disability Education — has been surveying disabled students on reopening, in order to push the university’s Disabled Students Program to better advocate for students’ ability to choose between online and in-person classes.

“The disability justice principle that we all stand by is: ‘Nothing about us without us,’” said Mamedov-Turchinsky, who co-chairs the group. “How can the university be making decisions that impact us very directly in terms of life and death decisions about our health without us even in the room?”

The main entrance to the UC Santa Cruz campus.
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

A history of activism

The demands laid out by UC Access Now and other disabled student groups are part of the history of the intersectional, intergenerational disability rights movement, born out of the flush of direct action during the 1960s.

The Rolling Quads — 11 quadriplegic UC Berkeley students — protested in the late 1960s, when the California Department of Rehabilitation removed assistance funding for two UC Berkeley students. That kickstarted a wave of disability rights activism centered around giving disabled students more control over their education and lives.

The Quads founded the first Center for Independent Living (CIL) at UC Berkeley and helped bring disability rights into national discourse, orchestrating the longest sit-in of a federal building in U.S. history.

“During the civil rights movement, people with disabilities weren’t front and center on the nightly news, like the marchers on Selma,” said Jasmine Harris, a UC Davis professor of law who studies disability rights. “Many people haven’t thought about disability as a civil right.”

But it is, Harris, who is dyslexic, said. She said that conceptualizing disability rights as “active charities” separate from other civil rights has perpetuated systemic discrimination against disabled people, even if unintentional.

Disability is also interconnected with other structural inequities that have drawn more attention in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The term disability justice was a term coined in 2005 by disabled queer women of color who felt that progressive social movements were not adequately addressing ableism, and the Black Disability Collective was founded last year out of that same impulse: Black disabled lives matter.

“We can talk about racial justice, ‘defund the police’, but if disability justice isn’t there, the lives don’t matter to you,” said UC Disability Ad Hoc Committee co-founder Syreeta Nolan. “Everything we do toward racial justice also goes toward racial justice for abled students.”

One of the challenges to building effective coalitions is finding and connecting with disabled students without making them feel targeted or profiled, organizers said.

“There is no central space to disseminate information [to disabled students],” said Lisa Albertson, a Berkeley transfer student and disabled single parent who leads the Berkeley Disabled Students group. “And when there is, one of the challenges is that when students graduate, their institutional memory goes away and they have to start again.”

Megan Lynch, a UC Davis graduate student who cowrote the Demandifesto, said that UC Access Now is currently collecting anonymous testimonials about disabled UC student, staff and faculty experiences, which are posted on Facebook. She added that she has received messages from incoming disabled students that they are grateful to the coalition and feel more hope, and that abled members of the UC community are slowly becoming more aware of UC’s part in systemic ableism.

“It’s the people with less power, fewer resources and more to lose who are leading,” she said. “This is hard work for slow change, but change is happening from the bottom up.”

Salanga is a former fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.