Although small in numbers, the disabled community on campus makes its voice heard.
Illustration by Bela Messex.

Brooke Harmssen knows all too well the everyday struggles of disabled students at UC Santa Cruz, both as a student who deals with disabilities and as an individual who has witnessed their effects on members of the community.

“It’s a different world when you have limitations,” Harmssen said.

As Harmssen describes a scene she witnessed last spring, her voice rises slightly, and her hands move emphatically. She said that while walking near the Cowell bus stop, she observed students ignoring and mistreating a blind man walking across the street.

“Students were pushing past him,” she said. “So he wasn’t, you know, easily doing his taps [with his cane] or anything and he almost got hit by a bike and a car, and people were rushing by him … No one talked to him.”

Harmssen, a fifth-year health sciences major from College Nine, took the situation into her own hands and chose to miss her bus in order to assist the stranger. But it is incidents like these that make Harmssen so adamant about bringing disability awareness to the community at UCSC.

Among the roughly 16,000 students at UCSC, about 600 students are currently registered with the Disability Resource Center. Although the percentage is small, the disabled population on campus is still moving to make their voices heard about the need for disability awareness and greater accessibility on campus.

The Disability Alliance (DA), which Harmssen is the president of, is a student organization that aims to educate the campus community about disabilities and their relevance on campus.

The DA has existed on the campus in some form or another, but it has yet to fully establish itself. It has been at UCSC for three years, but its meetings are sporadic and its membership low. However, the DA aims to unify students — disabled and non-disabled — in order to better educate the campus, and help disabled students gain confidence in who they are.

“It’s still in its infancy,” Harmssen said. “The mission [of the Disability Alliance] is to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with having a disability as a student on campus. There’s a broad range of people. There are people who don’t believe there are disabled students on campus and then there are other people who think that [disabled students] don’t take the same amount of classes, or [that they] get special treatment.”

One facet of awareness is recognition that not all disabilities are immediately apparent. Many of the students on campus have what are known as “invisible disabilities,” disabilities that aren’t apparent from an individual’s physical appearance.

“There is a misconception about that, just because you can’t see a person’s disability doesn’t mean they don’t need extra [help],” said Peggy Church, director of the Disability Resource Center. The role of the DRC is to ensure that the university follows the laws required under the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires equal access in education.

Church said many students are unaware that they even have a disability, while others avoid going to the DRC out of fear of the stigma.

“A lot of them don’t want to come in because they’re ashamed or they don’t know they’re eligible,” Church said. “They don’t know that their particular functional limitation would be a disability.”

Harmssen is one such student, and has been diagnosed with multiple “hidden disabilities” — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), along with a learning disability — but going to the DRC for help was not easy.

“I myself had trouble going to the DRC for the first time. I figured, I made it this far, I can do it on my own,” Harmssen said. “I didn’t realize that I’m studying way harder than I have to and stressing way more than I need to, and when I went to the DRC, it became different.”

Church has encountered many students like Harmssen, and hopes that if they knew “they weren’t alone,” they’d be more willing to seek help.

“I have seen many students struggle and they didn’t want to come in, they wanted to do it on their own, and then their grades were negatively impacted,” Church said. “Then they come and get accommodations [from the DRC] and then they are able to perform at the academic level where they belong.”

For both Church and Harmssen, it’s important that students understand that the DRC does not exist to make things “easier” on a student but rather to make things fair. The DRC offers not only advising and support, but it also rents out adaptive technology, sets students up with scribes and typists, and employs note-takers, among other services.

“There’s not a lessening of the requirements [for a course] ever,” Church said. “It’s all about helping the student do what everyone else is [able] to do.”

The DRC does offer help to students on campus to allow them to have a “level playing field” and not feel “marginalized,” but its primary job is to ensure that the university is meeting the standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is through the efforts of students that awareness is being spearheaded, and it is through such efforts the voice of the disabled student population is heard.

Caitlin Hernandez, a third-year literature major from Cowell College who is completely blind, served on a student-led discussion panel in October. The panel gave disabled students a chance to discuss their disabilities and address students directly, opening up a dialogue on disabilities and awareness. Hernandez is receptive to student curiosity and said “there is always room to learn and ask questions.”

“[During the panel presentations] it was a really small audience, and I was thinking, ‘It would be so great if it could be on a bigger scale,’” Hernandez said.

For Hernandez, education is imperative to making UCSC a more aware and more accessible campus.

“I’d much rather have people ask me questions than just automatically treat me differently or not talk to me at all,” Hernandez said. “It would be good to have more outreach activities for students to go and have a forum and ask questions.”

Owain Roberts, a third-year history major from Stevenson, has Asperger’s syndrome (a disability on the autism spectrum), and also participated on the recent panels. Roberts finds that public speaking allows him to battle the stereotypes that he is “retarded.”

“How I’ve dealt with the stereotypes is by making people more aware … it’s just a matter of bringing awareness and just making people see there’s more to the book than its cover,” Roberts said.

For Roberts, campus events like the panels have not only allowed him to educate people about his disability, but also allow him to gain confidence in himself.

“It definitely does empower [the panel speakers],” Roberts said. “I actually felt that effect. I felt like I could take on the world … I always eagerly await the opportunity [to educate people] when it rises again.”

While the campus takes measures to ensure the academic accessibility of the university, the terrain of the campus is far from accessible for students with physical limitations.

Sophie Palmer*, a fourth-year transfer literature major, is in a wheelchair as a result of spinal swelling. Palmer recalls an instance a year ago when she was unable to access the library comfortably.

“McHenry doors are very heavy,” Palmer said. “I’ve never had a public library where I’ve never had a push button [to open the door], so that was pretty surprising.”

Palmer addressed the library staff about her concerns, but she has not returned to the library since.

As of now, handicap accessibility at McHenry is limited.

It is unknown whether an automatic entrance will be installed anytime soon, said a library staffer who wished to remain anonymous. Currently there is only one accessible entry for physically disabled students: the receiving dock, the delivery location of any library package.

Palmer has found it difficult to access the places on campus that are supposed to be wheelchair-accessible, such as the specialized bathroom stall at Oakes.

“I feel really alienated — most of the students are very helpful, but I don’t see a lot of other disabled students on campus,” Palmer said. “I don’t see very much awareness on campus, [and] I feel like the school doesn’t really want [physically] disabled students on their campus because of the transportation issues and things.”

Like Palmer, Lizzie Crosthwaite, a fourth-year literature major from Cowell, has expressed concerns about the accessibility of some areas of campus. Crosthwaite has cerebral palsy, in particular a disorder called spastic triplesia that affects how tense her muscles are and her ability to relax those muscles. The affected areas are her lower legs and right arm, which make mobility at times challenging. If not for the services offered by the Disability Van Service, Crosthwaite would not be able to navigate the campus as well, she said.

“I was almost not going to come here,” Crosthwaite said. “[My mom and I] were both thinking, ‘Oh no, am I going to be able to get around campus?’ because it is very physically challenging.”

Crosthwaite said that although she loves the DRC, “They don’t deal with physical disabilities as much.”

Currently among the approximately 600 registered disabled students on campus, less than 100 of those students have a physical limitation.

While the campus remains difficult to traverse, the physical limitations of the campus are recognized by the administration, and currently a survey of the campus and the entire UC system is underway. Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer Susan Willats, said that they are doing a “snapshot” of all the UC campuses, attempting to determine how accessible or inaccessible things are, and “realize the range and say, ‘Here’s the best practices, here’s what we can do.’”

Willats said that the biggest problem the campus is currently facing is with accessibility and technology, ensuring that students can access all the materials put online for their classes. As of now, university-related sites like the student portal and eCommons are accessible, but PDF documents uploaded to the site may not be.

“That’s our biggest struggle right now — we are a small campus, we have very little money, and there are these big technological challenges,” Willats said.

Willats and DRC director Church both expressed a desire to see centers for adaptive technology on the campus, much like other UC campuses like Davis and Berkeley.

As an advocate of disability awareness on campus, computer engineering associate professor Roberto Manduchi, along with two associated faculty members, is in the process of planning and starting a center on assistive technology. Manduchi strongly believes that “it is unfortunate” that the UCSC community lacks academic interest in disabilities, but he hopes that in time this will change.

“At least from the technology side, we’re trying to create something, to create more interest [in disability research] in our students,” Manduchi said.

Manduchi, who is currently teaching a course on universal access and works on technology to aid the visually impaired, also said that the campus has not lent itself to being accessible when it comes to students with physical disabilities.

“One thing that strikes me about this campus is that we have very few students with physical disabilities,” Manduchi said. “The campus is not considered to be accessible … We should not accept … that we are inaccessible.”

Manduchi said that the lack of disability education, of disability awareness and of an established community of disabled students is a disservice to the community.

“This is a campus that boasts diversity,” Manduchi said. “We keep talking about diversity — well, diversity is not just gender, race, language, culture. Diversity includes diversity in abilities. In that sense, we are tremendously not diverse. I think that it is bad, because we are not serving the community as we should. We are serving some part of the community and neglecting others.”

While individuals like Church and Willats aim to improve the life of students with disabilities on campus, there is only so much they can do with the limited resources given, they said. Willats said that although the DRC provides accommodations, it is a small office and “barely has the bandwidth to get out there.”

The DRC, which is overall a small office, has, with student involvement, attempted to overcome financial limitations. Church said the Peer Mentors program came about after students approached her and addressed the need for networking among students with disabilities. Church then sought out grants in order to fund the program, working with students to bring about change in the disabled community.

Issues of awareness are left in the hands of students because, Willats said, “Who else better to tell the story than the students themselves?”

Harmssen, who advocates for sensitivity training on campus, believes it would help students not only learn how to interact with people with disabilities but that it would help students learn how to address people respectfully.

“[Hearing people] talking about disabilities jokingly … it doesn’t bother me personally, but I do know, I have worked with students, I know students who [say] it does hurt their feelings, and suddenly they’re afraid to tell people what they have,” Harmssen said. “That’s a problem. It’s scary. You shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”

Associate professor Manduchi, who is currently teaching a general education course on universal access and technology, hopes that his students will gain “a more educated view on what disability is, how life with a disability is, and how technology can help” and ultimately, “break the taboo of talking about disabilities.”

“I want the students to learn how life is with a disability,” Manduchi said. “This creates respect and awareness of these parts of society that we never really talk about.”

While students and faculty are attempting to bring awareness through education, ADA compliance officer Willats is aiming to reach administration. Willats is currently serving as a representative for the disabled community on the Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture, and Inclusion (ACCCI).

As Willats said, “The voice of people with disabilities is now at the table.”


*Names have been changed.