Students Petition for Disability Resource Center, Equity


Connor Gorry / The Triton

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A group of eleven students sat around a tile table inside a half-study space, half-Thai restaurant. Late in the Spring Quarter, the group had been discussing for weeks what their next action would be. Inside of the on campus restaurant Hi-Thai was hardly a choice location for meetings, but this was exactly what they were discussing.

At UC San Diego, there is no allocated community space for students with disabilities. More specifically, the group quickly pointed out during the meeting, there is no disability resource center. And at the table, attempting to collectively devise a set of clear needs for students with disabilities at UCSD, the group planned to do something about it.

Some at the table suggested direct action. Others preferred a more diplomatic approach, carefully discussing the needs of students with disabilities on campus with the vice chancellors and other relevant UCSD campus administrators.

Two voices stuck out in the conversation. And as it happened to be, the two voices were the group’s founders: Grace Ferber and Caroline Fogel.

While Ferber was clear in her desire to work carefully with University administration, Fogel was clear that she had little patience for the slow pace of university bureaucracy. Despite their different approaches to advocacy and organizing, in April 2017, the two started the Disability Student Alliance: a group of around 15 that aims to provide a voice for students with disabilities on campus.

After months of listening to students with similar stories to their own, they agreed: the University needed to do more for students with disabilities. And collectively, they planned to do it.

Unfamiliarity in Freshman Year

When she enrolled at UCSD, first year student Grace Ferber lacked the basic accommodations and support she needed to pursue her degree.

Diagnosed with Lyme disease in high school, Ferber expected two things when she came to college: institutional accommodation and community.

At UCSD, she found neither.

At around 13 years old and without her knowledge, Ferber contracted Lyme disease. By the time she received her diagnosis in high school, the disease had entered the late stages. Treatment was arduous and the disease, which has since given her chronic pain and mobility issues, was also a mental health struggle.

“When I fell into such a deep depression, a huge part of that was because most of the social activities on campus are things that are not accessible to me,” she said. “I couldn’t go to a single social function. I struggled with really simple daily tasks. Doing my laundry was very difficult to me, but there was no one I could ask, because there is not an accommodation for that.”

Because of the paperwork requirements, it took around seven months for Ferber to first receive accommodations from the Office for Student Disabilities (OSD). During that time, the only services provided to her were Triton Rides, which she found to be inadequate. After months of dealing with barebones accommodations, she considered not coming back to UCSD after Winter Quarter.

“Coming here and having no support was incredibly incredibly difficult,” she said. “I really felt that people in my situation did not belong in college.”

But Ferber was also convinced that she could not be the only person that felt this way. For her, it became necessary build a community and to destigmatize disability.

“The first person I met who I was going to start [the Disability Student Alliance] with, actually had to leave this school,” Ferber said. “One of things that’s kind of an intrinsic obstacle to this group is that being students with disabilities is that a substantial portion of our group has been hospitalized because they were in danger of suicide or for other health reasons.”

It was in this moment of uncertain outcome that Grace met Caroline Fogel.

Certainty in Sophomore Year

A second year ethnic studies major, Caroline Fogel was already busy with her own efforts in community building and advocacy. During Fall quarter of this year, Fogel planned to host an event for students with disabilities to come into a space, talk, and gauge everyone’s feelings about the campus. She was curious if others’ experiences mirrored her own.

In high school, like Ferber, Fogel said she was able to focus on her studies and received necessary accommodations without problem. However, as soon as she started school at UCSD, she was shocked to find how out how the school handled accommodation. During her freshman year, along with her doctors, Fogel asked the university for reasonable accommodations. However, she said that she received nothing until her condition became life threatening.

“Repeatedly, regardless of how many doctors letters I had and how strongly I advocated for myself, OSD refused to give me the life sustaining accommodations,” she said. “They were life sustaining accommodations. They were not wants.”

For context, Fogel described one of the symptoms and reason she required specific accommodations.

“I was having something called laryngospasm, the closing of the trachea from 15 seconds to two minutes, which results in anything from brain damage to death,” she said.

Fogel said that she did not receive proper accommodations until she ended up in the hospital. And even then, she had to wait an additional three days.

In her sophomore year, Fogel planned an event on Facebook to see if anyone else had gone through a similar experience on campus. But because of her disability, Fogel said she had to cancel.

However, despite cancelling the event, she said that students continued to message her on Facebook and that all of these messages had similar themes: “OSD isn’t listening to me,” “I don’t know what to do,” and “I feel so hopeless.”

“I didn’t know how it was for other students,” Fogel said. After having several conversations with other students, she felt she had a clear idea of what was going on.

“Everyone felt like they were alone,” she said. “Just the same way I felt in my freshman year.”

The Disability Student Alliance

Ferber and Fogel started the Disability Student Alliance to provide a voice for students with disabilities on campus. After listening to a variety of students with disabilities, who they said all felt they had not been listened to, the solution they came to was this: collective action.

“I had this vision of forming a collective voice… an intersectional voice,” Ferber said. “So that people who have so much value and so much to give aren’t lost in the crowd.”

The group’s first initiative is petitioning the campus administration to establish a resource center dedicated to community, advocacy, and awareness regarding disability at UCSD. As of this morning, the petition for the center had 368 signatures.

“We, as students with disabilities, demand that our presence be acknowledged on this campus,” the petition reads. “We have experienced systemic and chronic discrimination and erasure at the hands of administrators, professors, and peers.”

“What we’re doing at this time is advocating for things that the university already claims to have,” Ferber said. “We’re asking the university simply to live up to it’s own values.” Ferber was underwhelmed with the recent “2017 Reaffirmation Notice” email sent by Chancellor Khosla.

“The notion that students with disabilities are complaining about the system because they’re not educated about the system is acknowledging the problem that there is not dialogue,” said Fogel. “It’s strange that the university is reaffirming itself, instead of acknowledging its students.”

In the 2016 University of California Undergraduate Experiences Survey (UCUES), 21 percent of self-identifying students with disabilities said they “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” or “somewhat disagree” that students with a physical, psychological, or learning disability like their own are respected on this campus.

“Any sort of statistic that’s offered is going to be a gross underestimate of the situation,” said Ferber. “So many students, because the word ‘disability’ is seen as a pejorative, are not comfortable identifying with it.”

Another campus climate survey in 2014 found that 30 percent of undergraduate students with disabilities had seriously considered leaving UCSD; the highest number of any identity group measured by a survey that also looked at factors of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Seeking Equity

Both Fogel and Ferber described constantly being referred to the Office of Students with Disabilities (OSD) in order to solve structural problems that they say can only be resolved by the administration.

“[One person at] OSD thought I was trying to start a support group,” Ferber said. “We want to have somewhere where students with disabilities on this campus don’t feel like a burden when they have to be accommodated. We want them to feel like they’re welcome.”

While the Disability Student Alliance acknowledges that OSD is a necessary resource, they argue that it is not a space for developing community or conducting meaningful advocacy on behalf of students.

“You walk into a lobby with two chairs. You made an appointment in advance. You go into a private office with an OSD employee. You request your accommodations. You leave,” Fogel said. “There’s a big difference between being accommodated and being welcome.”

But for both advocates, the problem is not limited to dealing with OSD. They say the solution to problems of equity on this campus has to be threefold: a tangible response from OSD, a tangible response from administration, and a resource center with paid staff members.

“We constantly get told that students with disabilities whine,” Fogel said, describing some negative interactions with the administration. Ferber and Fogel argue that the burden should not be on students with disabilities to make the process easier, but the administration. They see a new resource center as a crucial component in that process.

“We want a space where you can see that we exist here. We demand to be taken seriously. And we demand to not be discriminated against,” said Fogel.  

The group’s first initiative is petitioning the campus administration to establish a resource center dedicated to community, advocacy, and awareness regarding disability at UCSD. As of this morning, the petition for the center had 367 signatures.

“We, as students with disabilities, demand that our presence be acknowledged on this campus,” the petition reads. “We have experienced systemic and chronic discrimination and erasure at the hands of administrators, professors, and peers.”

The Disability Student Alliance also recently started lobbying the University Centers Advisory Board (UCAB) to convert the recently vacated Outback Surf Shop into a resource center. Fogel says that University Centers Director John Payne said the space would not be a good fit for the resource center.

In an email to The Triton, Payne said that there are many groups interested in the newly vacated space and UCAB has yet to make a decision. UCSD is known for having a lack of readily available space and the process for any on campus space acquisition is often lengthy.

“As for the use of the Outback Surf Shop space we have many interested parties, not just the Disability Resource Center. All have compelling cases,” Payne said. “In regards to the space as Disability Resource Center, it is not something being considered due to the fact that the group advocating has not gotten enough backing from appropriate Campus departments, nor do they have any funding model in place.”

Ultimately, both Fogel and Ferber said they just want to create an environment where all students to excel, which they feel is central to the mission of the UC system and UCSD. They argue that a resource center makes disability and furthermore, ableism, visible.

“You see students and you see professors that do things that are ableist on large and small scales,” said Fogel. “There’s no response to them. And furthermore, the student who is outraged has no one they can go to to make their struggles known.”

“We’re not just looking for equality, which we don’t have at this time,” Ferber added. “We’re looking for equity.”

Gabriel Schneider is the News Editor for The Triton.