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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Barriers for students with disabilities bring learning inequities, according to two students

Students with disabilities continue to face accommodation barriers and discrimination on campus


By KRISTIN TRENT — campus@theaggie.org


While 3% of students on campus have a registered disability, students like Ryan Manriquez, a fourth-year political science and communication double major, still face inequities in communicating with professors after class due to accessibility barriers. 

Newly-renovated classrooms, such as Wellman 126, have seating that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the top row, with steps leading down to where an instructor lectures. Manriquez said he uses a wheelchair due to his spinal muscular atrophy. In Wellman, the lecturing floor is only accessed by stairs, making it impossible for many students with physical disabilities to go up to the professor after class and ask them a question, according to Manriquez. This issue is furthered because the professor may leave out the lower side door, he added.

Manriquez said he has tried to ask a question from the back of the classroom and has not been heard. 

“[Not] being able to ask questions to my professor after class like any of my peers brings inequities to learning,” Manriquez said.


Discriminatory Acts Against Students With Disabilities

Professors’ comfort levels vary in addressing students’ accommodation needs at UC Davis, according to Manriquez and Sarah Theubet, a fourth-year communication major and the chair of the ASUCD Disability Rights Advocacy Committee (DRAC). The Student Disability Center (SDC) is in charge of processing and granting accommodations to students, which are then sent to their professors. 

While Theubet said she has encountered a professor who refused to address her accessibility needs pertaining to course materials, Maniquez said other professors have been more flexible in his experience.

Discrimination against students with disabilities is a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which provides free appropriate public education to students with disabilities and is enforceable upon any organization that receives federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The center can help ensure that academic accommodations are being enforced, according to Jennifer Billeci, the director of the SDC. She encourages students to reach out immediately to their SDC specialist if they encounter difficulties. 

Theubet is immunocompromised, and said she has experienced difficulty attaining appropriate accommodations through the SDC for remote learning. She contracted Epstein-Barr virus as a child, compromising her immune system and lacked insurance for proper treatment  from a doctor. As a result, she does not have documentation of the disease that has rendered her immune system vulnerable and cannot receive the remote learning accommodation which allows her to view lectures recorded through the SDC.

“We are being told to go to different schools, to take quarters off and drop classes because teachers do not want to make classes accessible,” Theubet said.

Billeci encourages students to request accommodations even if they do not have proper documentation of their disability. The SDC will partner with students to help gather historical information and supply them with provisional services in the short term with the intent of providing accommodations in the future, according to Billeci. 


Outdoor Accessibility Barriers

Barriers to an accessible campus extend past lecture halls. Theubet also manages type 1 diabetes that, due to its late diagnosis, has caused visual impairments. She finds that navigating campus at night is especially challenging because of Davis municipal lighting codes that aim to decrease light pollution. 

Theubet has walked into low-hanging trees, which she said makes her feel unsafe on campus. Cracks in the sidewalk also present a hazard, as Theubet uses a cane that has gotten stuck in them and caused her to trip. Additionally, due to her visual and mobility impairments, Theubet uses the bus to commute to school, although she experiences anxiety due to crowding and her limited vision. 

“[Campus] is not a safe place for me to go,” Theubet said.


Proctored Exam Inadequacies

The use of online proctored tests continues to be a barrier for students with disabilities, according to Theubet and Manriquez. 

Manriquez shared a specific instance when his class required him to take a proctored exam. Using online testing software, the exam proctors asked Manriquez to lift his laptop as a pre-test check. He could not perform the task as a result of his disability and had to wait for approval of this change to the testing requirements, which he said caused him to feel unfit for the university environment. As Manriquez waited for approval to take the test, he said he found himself questioning his belonging at the university. 

Theubet said she experienced similar barriers using proctored online testing; she was told by the proctoring service that she could not use her screen reader or scratch paper. 

“I ended up failing the exam because they would not give me my accessibility needs,” Theubet said.


A Future Forward

During an ASUCD Senate meeting on April 7, SR #25, a bill drafted by DRAC, was approved by an 11 to one vote. The resolution demands that professors accommodate all students with disabilities in compliance with section 504 of the ADA. 

Manriquez believes that his position as ASUCD president can help further the dialogue about disability advocacy. 

“I ran [for ASUCD President] in 2020 […] because I saw a lack of representation in the association,” he said.

According to Manriquez, more disability topics and policies have been addressed at the administrative level this year. However, he still believes there is much work to be done. 

“Prioritizing our mental health is just as important as prioritizing our physical health and that should definitely be included in the conversation about accommodations as well,” Manriquez said.

Additional work can be done to address accessibility inadequacies towards buildings like the testing center, which lacks accessible pathways, Theubet said. Because it would cost more than the yearly budget for campus accessibility improvements, future construction projects should ensure accessibility for all students, according to Theubet.

“Accessibility should not be an afterthought,” Theubet said.

Furthermore, with most buildings on campus only having accessible entrances on their backs, Theubet believes that in order for accessibility to be truly equitable, entrances should be equally accessible. 

“We should not be hiding our disabled members,” Theubet said.


Written by: Kristin Trent — campus@theaggie.org



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