Accessibility for differently-abled students at Berkeley High School (BHS) has long persisted as a problem. The Special Education Department (SPED) is a team of teachers dedicated to aiding these students.
Angela Bau, a vision-impairment specialist, said, “Berkeley Unified is known for full inclusion and having all classes accessible to all students.” She also explained that many students in the SPED program attend normal classes alongside specialized SPED classes. “A majority of the students in the SPED program are diagnosed with learning disabilities, but there are also students that are visually, physically, hearing, or cognitively impaired, or receive speech therapy services,” continued Bau.
Even though these teachers are tremendous resources for impaired students, these students face many issues, like with the school’s architecture. Much of BHS was built in a time where accessibility for differently-abled students wasn’t considered by the district. For example, the C-Building, the oldest and largest building at Berkeley High, has four floors. Even though these floors are connected with elevators, they frequently break down. Some students who don’t need the elevators use and vandalize them. David Daniels, a math teacher and member of the SPED program said, “I have had one student not be able to enroll in my class due to stairs in the classroom.”
Bathrooms are a safety concern for not only disabled students but also non-disabled students. “The toilet facilities are sorely lacking. In SPED, teachers and a pair of professionals need to help students with toileting and hygiene, so just having accessibility to clean sinks, toilets, bathroom stalls, and such are in short supply [due to vandalism].” Daniels said. Fire alarms are also chaotic for these students. The elevators are shut down so these students need to use and get special chairs to get down the stairs. Extreme overcrowding and blaring alarms can cause students to panic or get overwhelmed.
Newer buildings like the M-Building have fewer floors and are much more accessible. The M-Building is also more accessible because fewer students have classes in it daily. In addition to the problem with getting from floor to floor in the C-Building, there is also the problem of overcrowding in the hallways. This overcrowding may also trigger reactions in students with certain disabilities, especially now due to COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has had a profound impact on SPED services because we have not been able to provide the auxiliary services that are required under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act),” Daniels said.
Although distance learning was much harder for many other students, some students with disabilities excelled. Daniels continued, “Distance learning has also been very beneficial to a minority of students who faced challenges from the social environment.”
In the transition back to in-person school, Daniels expressed that he was “profoundly moved by the willingness of many Berkeley High students to integrate their peers in a classroom setting.”
Dinari Ramsey, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), is hearing impaired, and uses an interpreter in his classes. He said that BHS has done a good job giving him the assistance he needs for his disability. “I’m provided with 2 interpreters, they switch out every period. I have a guidance counselor, Ms. Lydia, she helps me out a lot,” Ramsey said. “Recently I had a problem getting to school on time, and she helped me get a Deaf Alarm… In my experience, the school helping me with my disability has been good.”
Without his interpreter,“I probably wouldn’t be here… when I’m slacking off, she helps me get back on track,” Ramsey said. On days without an interpreter, focusing in class proves challenging for Ramsey as it’s hard to understand the teacher. “On days without [my interpreter], I would be sitting in the back, and if I’m in the back I can’t hear the teacher, so I’m just not paying attention at all.”
“If you need help… try to advocate for yourself because I know that’s something I struggle with,” Ramsey said. “Don’t be afraid to ask because in my experience, the help has been really good.”