UC Davis students and Student Disability Center director discuss accessibility, inclusion for people with disabilities on UC campuses
UC Access Now, a coalition for disability rights, was initiated by a UC Davis graduate student and currently includes members from five UC campuses. Megan Lynch, a graduate student of horticulture and agronomy, organized this campaign and its “Demandifesto,” published in July 2020, that outlines goals and demands for UC campuses and facilities.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Enacted in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and ensures that they have the same rights and access to opportunities as non-disabled people. The Demandifesto refers to issues with UC campuses’ infrastructure and demands the UC “make a serious attempt to retrofit buildings still in use or take the opportunity to demolish them or build new ones that are not just up to ADA standard but beyond.” Lynch echoed that sentiment and said that UC Davis and the UC need to meet the ADA’s standards and go beyond the minimum requirements to demonstrate a commitment to protecting disability rights.
“Even [with the] ADA, itself, […] people are treating it as ‘Well, we’ve met ADA, that’s the end of what we need to do for you disabled people here,’” Lynch said. “That shows that what you care about is that the law is forcing you to treat us as equals, and the moment the law stops forcing you to do something, you don’t actually care to treat us as equals, you don’t care whether we have access, you don’t care whether we’re included in the campus community.”
The demands of UC Access Now include establishing disability as a part of diversity efforts, bringing campus buildings up to, and beyond, ADA standards and including people with disabilities in decision-making processes.
Jennifer Billeci, the director of the UC Davis Student Disability Center (SDC), also sees the ADA as a minimum requirement and said that improving accessibility is an ongoing goal for the SDC.
“I agree that the Americans with Disabilities Act [is] a starting point,” Billeci said via email. “The Student Disability Center actively pursues opportunities to expand services and enhance support for students with disabilities and all students regardless of their association with the Student Disability Center.”
Efforts like UC Access Now that aim to improve accessibility for people with disabilities at UCs are a historically common occurrence. In 2011, a UC Santa Barbara student filed a lawsuit against the UC system because he allegedly was denied a job on the basis of his disability. Five years later in 2017, a former UC San Diego undergraduate student sued the university, alleging that the staff had failed to accommodate his disability. Earlier this year, a student cited issues with accessibility and accommodations in the animal science department at UC Davis. Last month, a judge ruled that the UC must suspend the use of all SAT and ACT scores, citing that allowances for test-optional applications puts students with disabilities at a disadvantage.
One in four adults in the U.S. have some type of disability, according to the CDC. According to Lynch, the UC system, as a publicly-funded entity, has a duty to provide the opportunity for education to every member of the California public, not just non-disabled members.
“I am a lifelong Californian, [and I have] every bit as much right to have a first-class educational experience here that is accessible to me, as anyone else does,” Lynch said. “This is my right. You are denying me my rights—and not just me, loads of other people.”
The Autism and Neurodiversity Community at UC Davis took part in writing the Demandifesto. According to Erica Mineo, a fourth-year biological sciences major and the vice president of the Autism and Neurodiversity Community, disability stigma is present on the UC Davis campus among undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.
“It’s more of a way that disabled students are perceived,” Mineo said. “It’s really telling when, say, you have the wheelchair accessible entrance out in the back of a building along with the trash and the freight. I think that just says it all. I guess some say that our campaign might be a bit too radical. But I would argue that change needs to start somewhere, and you don’t necessarily need to seek to have everybody agree with you in order to make change.”
In terms of accommodations, Mineo mentioned the problems that can arise from having one solution for the variety of needs that people with autism or disabilities might have. According to Mineo, although she appreciates the efforts to accommodate her needs, whether accommodations work for an individual is subjective.
“I feel like they’re kind of lumped under a one-size-fits-all type of thing,” Mineo said. “A one-size-fits-all solution like these ‘reduced distraction’ testing environments. What is reduced distraction, compared to a really noisy lecture hall where if I were to take an exam there, I would be on the verge of a panic attack versus, say, maybe a slightly smaller room with a few people? It could still be distracting, but it’s reduced. That might not be the right accommodations for some people.”
This month, UC Davis received a $2.1 million grant to establish a four-year program for students with intellectual disabilities, including autism. The Supported Education to Elevate Diversity (SEED) will be the first scholar program in California to provide these kinds of services and opportunities for students with disabilities throughout their pursuit of higher education.
One way to improve student services is to employ more people with diverse disabilities at the SDC, as they would have a firsthand understanding of living with different disabilities, according to Lynch.
“It would be important that they be staffed by people […] with a variety of disabilities,” Lynch said. “I, with my disabilities, am not going to spot something that somebody with autism has, for instance, and would be concerned about.”
According to Billeci, 44% of the SDC staff has disclosed one or more disabilities and similar representation can be found among student staff.
“Disability is a crucial element of diversity,” Billeci said via email. “Disability is also uniquely individual. To fully achieve representation, it’s important to recognize that input from many is required to create equitable access. The Student Disability Center prioritizes opportunities to widen staff representation in all areas of diversity—we know that a diverse staff makes […] our efforts most effective.”
For Mineo, the most difficult part of the campaign has been increasing awareness and gaining support from the community.
“This campaign needs more visibility, and we need more neurotypical, abled allies expressing support,” Mineo said. “It can’t just be us because I think it just needs to be a more unified effort.”
Furthermore, Lynch said that broader support and including disability rights in larger issues could have a positive impact on not only the UC system, but also other universities and workplaces.
“If we could, while we’re talking about how we’re [going to] reimagine the world, get this issue in there as well, because it is an intersectional issue, and every group has disabled people in it,” Lynch said, “We could do so much to make the world a better place.”
Written by: Sophie Dewees — firstname.lastname@example.org