Out of Sight

For Visually Impaired Students, Support Services Are Too Often Hidden

By Nancy Millar Patton

Obtaining a college education is no easy task, but for students with disabilities, the path to completing a degree program is lined with unique challenges and barriers.

Youth with disabilities participate in post-secondary programs at only one-quarter the rate attained by their counterparts without disabilities, and at only one-third the rate attained by economically disadvantaged youth, according to a report by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.

Many disabled students also experience prejudice in their lives. Ableism is a form of prejudice against people with disabilities.

Wakeelah Aaliya originally came to Berkeley City College in 2008, after a stint at the University of Illinois, where her experience was a “culture shock.” Aaliya felt like a “social abnormality.” Coming from the Bay Area, she felt there was no space for her; there was little racial consciousness at the university and the cultures generally didn’t mix. Add to that her visual impairment, and one can see how she fell outside of social norms within the school. She says she experienced a “triple whammy,” being sight impaired, female and African American, she was ostracized and treated like she wasn’t smart and couldn’t think.

Aaliya points out that she was not made aware of resources for the disabled and would essentially stumble upon information about what was available while speaking with peers about their experiences. She says she also faced campus counselors who disbelieved the extent of her disability, and thought she was trying to “milk the system.”

Louis Do, a former student of BCC who is blind, concurred with Aaliya. As a visually-disabled student, Do found the resources available to him for assistance with accessibility were not very well advertised. “I don’t know how you’d find them if you weren’t aware of them,” said Do.

Fortunately for Do, a case manager from the Hatlen Center for the Blind, from which he had recently graduated, put him in touch with the Disabled Students Program and Services (DSPS) department at BCC, also known as Program & Services for Students with Disabilities (PSSD).

Do, however, feels that when he first contacted PSSD, they started him off on the wrong foot. Told that the math and English assessments were not disability accessible, it would be necessary to put him in lower division classes. When he protested, he was informed he could submit a writing sample, which ultimately gave him access to the proper English 1A class. But there was no alternative to the math portion to prove his competency. The only course of action he was given was to take two remedial math classes before he could qualify to take the college level statistics class required for transfer to a University of California campus.

Luckily for Do, his first remedial math class instructor saw his aptitude, and recommended that he skip straight to statistics. Still, when he notified PSSD of his instructor’s recommendation, he was told that was not an option. “They [PSSD] didn’t seem invested in my success,” Do recalled. Again, he had to advocate for himself, and insist he be given the opportunity.

Fortunately, Do had confidence and was comfortable doing that. He even reported overhearing a teacher say, “I can’t have him in my class, he’s blind.” But at the end of the day, he said most of his teachers were supportive and seemed interested in seeing him succeed.

While allowing that the department is short staffed, acknowledges Do, “It’s incumbent upon PSSD to have those tools and measures in place and make them known to the student body in order to make their program and their students successful.”

In the end, however, Do did want it known that the Alternate Media department, specifically, was ultimately instrumental in providing him with accessible materials.

When asked about how the disabled become aware of BCC’s accessibility and support services, Roberto Gonzalez, Alternate Media Specialist with PSSD, told The BCC Voice that someone who walks in off the street and has previously received disability services can pick up where they left off. If a student has recently been diagnosed with a disability and is exploring what to do for the first time, “some real work needs to be done,” Gonzalez said, “which can take some time.” The program and services available at the college level are completely voluntary. Students must seek out services, enroll and meet eligibility requirements.

There are several ways PSSD reaches out to the student population about their support services. Community Advisory Committee meetings — mandated by federal and state law — are held annually and relay the services available through PSSD. Other times, PSSD representatives will attend an instructor’s class to let students know about the services they offer. Some instructors also include information regarding what resources are available in their course syllabus.

Students interested in the accommodation through the PSSD will find services such as Alternate Textbook Program(s), Assistive Technology and Digital Accessible Information System(s) (DAISY). Students who would like more information about the PSSD can stop by the Office of Disabled Students Program and Services in Room 261 or call them at (510) 981-2812 or (510) 981-2813. You can also visit their website at: http://www.berkeleycitycollege.edu/wp/pssd/.

Empowerment of the disabled community is exercised both inside and outside the classroom. It’s important for students with disabilities to feel as though they are moving from a world where they are invisible, into a world where they are seen and heard. While there is work to be done, greater awareness about the experiences of students with disabilities will increase the effectiveness of the support that is provided. Through honest and thoughtful discussions, we can make room for individual and collective understanding.

At the top: Louis Do faces into the camera. Photo courtesy of Louis Do

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