Amanda Quirk wants UC Santa Cruz to improve its access for students with disabilities. She spent five years as a Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrophysics and struggled to navigate the campus’ hills, rocky paths and roads without sidewalks. The university and city, she says, need to do better. Already, too many talented students choose to go elsewhere.
When I visited UC Santa Cruz in 2017 as an accepted candidate in the astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D. program, I was awestruck by the beauty of the town and the campus. A campus in the middle of the redwoods is simply magical.
The magic faded during my first walking tour. I quickly realized the drawbacks of a campus built before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and located on top of a hill in the redwoods.
The campus is not accessible.
Even today, 32 years after the ADA guaranteed equal opportunities and access to people with disabilities, UCSC remains unmanageable and hostile to people like me.
There are no consistent sidewalks; some major paths don’t have sidewalks at all. The sidewalks that do exist are often steep and cracked.
Many popular routes on campus aren’t paved and resemble rocky hiking trails. There’s limited accessible parking, and accessible entrances aren’t usually marked.
I have skeletal dysplasia, which leads to chronic joint pain and instability.
After my acceptance, I worried how I would navigate the campus. But UCSC was a great fit for me. The people in the astronomy and astrophysics department are collaborative, friendly, and doing groundbreaking research I was interested in.
The bus system, I told myself, would help me. It would make UCSC possible. And I would spend most of my time on Science Hill and around the Interdisciplinary Sciences Buildings on the west side of campus. I would manage.
I swallowed my worry and accepted.
It was not always an easy five years.
While I did only need to be in a handful of buildings, I soon discovered I wanted to go to other places on campus. The bookstore. The campus cafe. The pool. Each time, I had to consider how close the bus could get me and how hard it would be to navigate the uneven hills on my own.
What baffled me the most was that the Disability Resource Center (DRC) was in an isolated building that had no bus route or consistent sidewalks leading to it. Every time I wanted to talk about resources or find community among other disabled students, I had to hurt my body to get there.
I did have the option of using the disabled van shuttle, but I wanted to save the single resource available for students who needed it more than I did. I also wanted to advocate for a solution that didn’t force me — and other students like me — to go make such an effort to get access.
I worked at the DRC as a graduate student assistant for a year in 2018 and helped campaign for a solution to make the building more accessible — be it a bridge or a bus route. In meeting after meeting, I kept listening to able-bodied people tell me the bureaucratic and environmental reasons why this wasn’t possible.
Every time I wanted to talk about resources or find community among other disabled students, I had to hurt my body to get there.
One person questioned me if access was truly a problem, as they rarely saw wheelchair users on campus.
“That’s because this campus isn’t welcoming to them, so they may choose not to come here,” I responded, saddened that such an explanation was necessary.
It was so disheartening, I stepped away and focused on building community for disabled graduate students.
Recently, the DRC moved to an accessible area.
While this is an important change, it has resolved only a single problem for disabled students.
The building the DRC was originally in, Hahn Student Services, remains inaccessible, yet it is full of vital student resources. Hahn houses the office of financial aid, the registrar, the career center, the dean of students, the student business center, veterans services, and the Slug Support Program.
These offices are crucial resources for students to register for classes and get transcripts, process and receive their financial aid, handle paperwork, and receive emergency food and financial support.
However, they all still exist in an inaccessible building and weren’t moved along with the DRC. So when disabled students need these resources, they have to take an extra step and plan well in advance how to get there and home.
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Campus is not the only challenge. The city and county of Santa Cruz are also full of inaccessible housing and paths. This makes it more expensive to be disabled in Santa Cruz.
Disabled students have to be “picky” about the housing they live in. It must be near accessible sidewalks and bus routes (parking is not free on campus even if one has a disability placard), and the home needs to fit an individual’s access needs. In a housing market like Santa Cruz’s, having additional requirements often leaves few options, and those options are hugely expensive.
Housing is already a burden on many students’ salaries. Disabled students might simply not be able to afford to live in Santa Cruz.
I graduated with my Ph.D. in June and, after winning several fellowships for my research and placing second in the UC-wide Grad Slam competition, the dean of graduate studies, Peter Biehl, asked me to be the student speaker. I was so proud to have been selected and honored to talk about the other graduate students and the amazing work they do.
I spoke to students, staff and family members, all with varying levels of physical access needs, at a ceremony that provided only about 10 chairs to its hundreds of participants.
It was a bittersweet end to my experiences at graduate school here.
UCSC has to do more. Until UCSC makes actual changes to its campus and to how it handles disability and graduate stipends, the school will lose out on talented, disabled graduate and undergraduate students, faculty and staff, who reasonably choose not to sacrifice their health to come.