When Cyn Gomez arrived on UC Berkeley’s campus as a second-year student in fall 2022, they realized they’d taken the benefits of online learning for granted. Their depression and anxiety, in addition to their learning disabilities, made the transition to in-person classes difficult. So they turned to the university’s Disabled Students’ Program, seeking accommodations that would excuse some class absences and provide them access to recorded lectures.
But it took Gomez almost three weeks to schedule and undergo an intake appointment with a disability specialist. By the time the office had approved Gomez’s accommodations, the first two months of their sophomore year had already gone by.
The experience left them discouraged and reluctant to recommend the Disabled Students’ Program to other students dealing with similar challenges.
“It’s frustrating to want to direct people that are struggling to a resource that they’re not going to be able to access for a long time,” Gomez said. “It’s like giving false hope.”
Disabled students across the University of California are facing long wait times and staffing shortages as they seek accommodations from their universities’ disability services. A UC workgroup is considering pursuing a goal of providing one disability specialist for every 250 disabled undergraduate students. But the recommendations are not yet final, and all eight undergraduate campuses who shared their student-to-specialist ratios with CalMatters reported numbers falling short of that target, with schools reporting specialists’ caseloads of up to 600 students.
As schools struggle to recruit and pay for the disability specialists responsible for reviewing and approving individuals’ housing and academic accommodations – which can include note-taking services, on-campus transportation, additional time for exams and more – disabled students say the delays in service have left them academically and emotionally drained. In response, the UC Student Association is requesting more aid from the state for the 2023-24 fiscal year and beyond in order to hire more than 100 additional specialists.
Staffing shortages can derail students’ classes, especially on a 10-week quarter system, said Marvia Cunanan, a UC Santa Barbara student who’s helping to lead the student association’s campaign for more state funding.
“The quarter system is really fast. And two weeks without accommodations, or three weeks without accommodations, you’ve already had two quizzes or an assignment that you needed extended time for,” said Cunanan, who is autistic and was diagnosed with ADHD in their first year at UCSB.
Cunanan said they rely on extended time on tests, flexibility on long-term assignments, note taking services and the use of text to speech software. “Without those things arranged, it could really impact someone’s academic career.”
In the 2020-21 school year, 7% of UC students received accommodations from their campuses’ disability services, up from 5% in the 2017-18 school year. Some campus directors report increases over the past two decades in the number of disabled students they serve that have exceeded centers’ hiring rates.
The rising demand for services stems in part from greater support for disabled students in K-12 schools, which made it easier for them to pursue higher education, said Adam Kasarda, director of UC Irvine’s Disability Services Center. At the same time, as the stigma around disabilities has decreased over time, more students have felt empowered to pursue accommodations, he said.
UC Irvine’s center currently registers 2,700 students, up 300 from last academic year, Kasarda said.
“They’re not in sync,” he said. “Student numbers have always outpaced staff.”
Frank Granda considers himself lucky. The second year political science and international studies student at UC Irvine said it took him about a month to receive academic accommodations when he reached out to the university’s Disability Services Center the summer before his first year – but some of his peers have faced much longer wait times.
“They’re basically running us on a shoestring budget,” Granda said. “They’re doing the best they can, I get that; this just can’t go on for long.”
UCI’s Disability Services Center tries to schedule appointments with students within three to five business days of their request, Kasarda said, but it currently faces staff shortages: Only four of its seven specialist positions are currently filled, leaving each specialist to serve an average of 460 students.
Caseloads are similar at UC Santa Barbara’s Disabled Students Program, where the number of students receiving accommodations has more than quadrupled since 2005, to around 2,500, but the number of disability specialists has only risen from three to five, said Director Gary White. Recruiting and retaining staff members has been an ongoing challenge as specialists’ pay has not kept up with the rising cost of living in California, White said.
While student advocates report that disability services’ resources and staff are strained across the UC, some campuses face greater shortages than others. Among the system’s nine undergraduate campuses, only UC San Diego declined to provide a staffing ratio for its disability services program.
At UC Merced, the campus’s single disability specialist serves 350 undergraduate and graduate students from a cubicle in a library hallway. As students crowd in the hallway waiting for their appointments, the setup lacks privacy, which deters some from coming in, said Ravneel Chaudhary, a fourth-year psychology major who is currently seeking accommodations for his mental health.
“There are students that I know that have not reached out (for services) because they just thought the process was too tedious,” Chaudhary said. “Having more staff would lower wait times and make it truly accessible.”
At UC Berkeley, Gomez said they think specialists’ stress has limited their ability to advocate for students’ needs. Gomez’s specialist denied their request for recorded lectures after they underwent surgery earlier this semester, they said. As a result, Gomez said, they missed over two weeks of lecture content that they are still trying to recover.
“I think I could have gotten those recordings if they weren’t so overbooked or overworked,” Gomez said. “There is room for more equity.”
Carolyn Swalina, acting assistant director for accommodation services at UC Berkeley’s Disabled Services Program, said by email statement that the university has recently added four new disability specialists. Specialists aim to schedule intake appointments with students within two weeks, while also offering drop-in office hours, she said. But each one still serves about 470 undergraduates at a time.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, universities are required to provide disabled students with equal access to opportunities on campus. But it’s not always clear if – and how – universities are meeting their legal requirements, said Rachel Moran, a Distinguished and Chancellor’s Professor of Law at UC Irvine School of Law whose expertise is in education law and policy.
While universities cannot create unreasonable delays when providing students’ accommodations, there is no clear standard for how long these delays can be, Moran said. The main question, she said, is whether a delay was so severe that it denied a student access to educational services. What can be considered a reasonable delay often depends on the context of an individual’s situation, she added.
Beth Ribet, a UCLA lecturer in disability studies, said the UC has underinvested in disability services, adding that she believes it is only a matter of time before the UC has to confront its shortcomings in the form of student protests or legal action.
When caseloads are high, specialists may resort to outright rejecting students’ accommodation requests instead of working with them to find solutions that will fulfill the university’s obligations under the disabilities act. Thus, staff shortages have not only resulted in long wait times, but also a failure by the university to provide reasonable accommodations, she added.
“I do believe that there’s a fairly widespread pattern of disability civil rights violations within the University of California,” Ribet said. “It’s alarmingly common.”
UC spokesperson Ryan King declined to comment on Ribet’s specific concerns. Campus disability services are paid for with a combination of state dollars, gifts and student fees, he said, and funding varies by campus.
“We are committed to ensuring that every student has the resources and support necessary to pursue their education and participate in their university community, which is why we continue to listen to our disabled students, improve campus accessibility, and provide academic support,” he said.
Complicating the situation, there is no clear consensus on what the ratio of students receiving accommodations to specialists should be. At the UC Regents’ January meeting, Pablo Reguerín, a UC Davis vice chancellor and member of the university’s disability workgroup, said the group plans to recommend a ratio of one specialist for every 250 undergraduates registered with disability services, and one for every 150 graduate students.
But the UC Student Association argues this ratio underestimates the true number of individuals needing accommodations. Not all students with disabilities may proactively seek services, the student association argues, pointing to data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicating that nearly 1 in 5 undergraduate students reports having a disability.
The association has requested $36 million in state funding for disability services – enough, it says, to hire more than 200 additional disability specialists across the university and pay them competitive salaries.
When disability specialists have heavy caseloads, it affects their ability to provide other services besides approving accommodations, students and disability services staff said. Cunanan, the UC Student Association representative, said they’d like to see specialists provide career counseling, mentorship, and training for faculty on how to make their classrooms more accessible for disabled students.
“When our staff are overworked and these services are understaffed and they’re facing high turnover, we don’t have the opportunity to develop that type of relationship with the specialists,” Cunanan said.
UCSB’s Gary White said that with caseloads of 500 students each, specialists on his campus are unable to dedicate themselves to other work, such as supervising peer programs or holding good-luck gatherings before finals for disabled students.
“500 is like, ‘Wow, that’s not too much,’ but it’s huge. It is absolutely huge,” White said. “There are numbers, and then there are the actual duties and responsibilities that we can do to make sure that a student is accommodated. It goes beyond the numbers.”
The California Senate included an additional $19 million for disabled student services at UC in its budget plan for 2023-24. The full Legislature must discuss and approve a budget for the upcoming fiscal year by June 15; the funding was not included in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal.
On Monday, UC students urged an Assembly subcommittee on education finance to also support funding for disabled student services. Cunanan was one student who provided testimony at the hearing.
“Many people of color like myself are often identified as having a disability later in life, newly entering the world of academic accommodations in our college career,” Cunanan said.
“But does the UC employ enough specialists who acknowledge this reality? … Who know our surgery schedules or transportation needs and can coordinate hybrid access to our classes? The answer is no.”
At the January UC Regents meeting, the workgroup presented an update on its work, including a recommendation that the UC increase the staffing of disability services to ensure that students can book and receive appointments within two to four business days.
However, some regents criticized the update as being overly brief and lacking urgency. Regent Ana Matosantos asked the workgroup to identify and move forward with “no-regret” investments that could address the immediate needs of disabled students, while Regent Maria Anguiano said she was disappointed with the UC’s almost three-year timeline for establishing the workgroup and collecting data on disabled students.
“There just feels like there’s a lack of urgency on the issues at hand here,” Anguiano said. “How are we going to move this forward more quickly?”
At UC Berkeley, some changes are already underway. The Disability Cultural Community Center, dedicated to providing a safe space for disabled students, faculty and staff to connect with one another, opened in October 2022 with plans to offer community events, career counseling and other resources.
Eden Potgieter, a fourth-year political science student, said the center helped them cope with the frustration they sometimes felt as a disabled student at Berkeley. The long wait times at UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program had negatively affected their mental health, they said, even discouraging them from attending class at times.
“It just makes me feel like I don’t belong inside of a classroom or on campus,” Potgieter said.
According to the UC’s 2020 Undergraduate Experience Survey, 74% of disabled students agreed that they felt like they belonged at their respective campuses, compared to 86% of students without a disability.
Potgieter called the new Disability Cultural Community Center “a step in the right direction” that can provide valuable opportunities for students to meet and support one another through the process of navigating accommodations.
“It’s nice to be able to go there and to socialize and for other people to understand,” Potgieter said.
Tagami is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.