Students Reeling After Post-Secondary Supports Cut
When Bonnie Weinstein Crowe dropped her son off at the University of California, Berkeley to start his freshman year of college in August, she couldn’t help but worry.
A kid leaving the nest can be nerve-racking for any parent. For Weinstein Crowe, the typical worries were heightened: Her son has autism.
“When my kid is comfortable, he’s amazing. He’s extremely gifted academically,” the Thousand Oaks, Calif. resident said. “But when he’s nervous and scared, and there’s a million people, and he feels uncomfortable, feels anxiety — he can’t be himself. He can’t do his thing.”
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She had faith in UC Berkeley — which touts itself as the birthplace of the disability rights movement — in large part because of a campus program that helps students with physical, mental and developmental disabilities adjust to college and independent living.
But on Sept. 1, shortly after her son settled on campus, the school informed students that the program would be discontinued in a month. It officially ends this week, and last Friday staffers were cleaning out their desks and offices.
Services offered through Workability IV, better known as “WAIV,” helped students with disabilities transition from home to life at college. It also taught students with disabilities how to secure services from the state, helping to make them less reliant on family.
Students and parents say the program also helped students with disabilities learn how to advocate for themselves and master everyday skills: riding public transportation, doing laundry, talking with students and professors. In addition, they said the program helped them find tutors and study groups and offered support in times of emotional distress.
Now, those services are gone, and dozens of students have lost what many felt was a critical support system.
“He wants to be a physicist. He deserves to be a physicist. He’s gifted and bright and he could change the world — he really could,” Weinstein Crowe said of her son. “He just needs a little help.”
UC Berkeley, which said it had 1,800 students with disabilities last school year, offers services through its Disabled Students’ Program, of which WAIV was a part.
School officials blame the shutdown of WAIV on changes to contract terms triggered by a federal law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, that took effect over the summer.
The California Department of Rehabilitation offers schools funding for WAIV programs, but in exchange the schools must provide a certain level of funding toward staffing the program. The new rules state that only staff interacting directly with students — not administrators, equipment or program space — can count toward the matching funds.
UC Berkeley would have had to devote roughly $209,000 worth of staff time to be able to continue offering the program, according to the Department of Rehabilitation budget. In exchange, the university would have received $314,000 from the state.
The new rules gave the campus little wiggle room and, rather than paying, it chose to close the program, according to university spokesman Roqua Montez. The closure comes as the school deals with a $150 million budget crisis.
UC Berkeley is one of 12 universities in the state with WAIV programs but the only school to eliminate it due to the new rules.
Montez said the university is looking for another way to provide assistance to students with disabilities. Two university administrators will meet with students to discuss a new model for services, he said.
“We agree that there are students with disabilities who need increased support to improve their chances for success at Cal,” Montez said by email.
Weinstein Crowe heard of the program’s closure before her son did and had to tell him what she’d learned over the phone.
“Are you sitting down?” she asked him.
Last week, he had an anxiety attack, she said. He has been struggling in one of his classes and the university was unable to help him find a tutor or study group. A WAIV staff member helped the young man through his anxiety attack, but on Friday, with the program closure, the staff member was out of a job, cleaning out his office.
Weinstein Crowe is worried about who will help her son the next time.
The end of WAIV comes as the university struggles to provide the most basic of disability services, campus activists say.
Only six specialists in the Disabled Students’ Program and two administrators serve the hundreds of registered students with disabilities, according to Montez.
Some students told the Chronicle of waiting weeks or months into the semester to receive their textbooks in an accessible format (for instance, braille or audio textbooks for students who are blind), having exams scheduled during other classes and struggling to communicate their accommodation needs to professors who aren’t trained in how to comply with disability access requirements.
Lisa Albertson, a student who receives accommodations because of an autoimmune condition, said she waited a year to get her note-taker request approved, ultimately filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. Her incompletes and academic difficulties led to the loss of her financial aid, she said.
Albertson’s experience battling the administration led her to co-found the activist group Berkeley Disabled Students, which has lobbied the campus for improved services.
“I ended up having to take out payday loans so that I could make it through my last semester,” she said.
In December 2015, the Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights, a small group of UC Berkeley professors, co-signed a letter to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks expressing concern over delays to accommodations, staffing vacancies and the possibility that the school was not in compliance with the terms of the settlement of a 2005 disability-related lawsuit.
Dirks wrote a letter delegating the issues to a member of his administration 3 1/2 months later. Over the summer, he acknowledged in another letter that the school’s approach to delivering services “must change.” Dirks has since announced his resignation amid criticism of his handling of campus sexual assault cases and the school budget.
Sarah Funes, a senior studying political science, said UC Berkeley’s disability support services have fallen short of expectations “in every way” — except for WAIV.
She said it was the only campus disability program that ever worked for her, helping her to secure two internships at U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office.
“I never would’ve gotten that opportunity had I not had help with my resume and my cover letter through Workability IV,” she said.
Parents like Weinstein Crowe, who want those kinds of opportunities for their children, say they feel there is little recourse.
“I feel like he has to fail and then I can file a complaint. But I don’t want that to happen, I don’t want him to fail,” she said. “I just want somebody to be there for him — I just want what was promised.”
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