Disabled Community College Students Fight Budget Cuts in Classroom AT and Other Academic Supports

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by Henry Contreras, CFILC’s Public Policy Director

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
—Late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen”
As we’re all painfully aware, California has experienced a decade of state budget deficits.  They’ve caused massive budget cuts reducing or eliminating vital programs and services for people with disabilities. 
However, after being blasted by seemingly endless news accounts about multi-billion dollar revenue losses and cuts, the public has become weary and apathetic about the issue.  Reductions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions or billions of dollars have become “same old, same old” news.” 
People are aware of the job losses and program closures. They also know that education and health care programs were hard hit.  But it’s merely a numbers game to them, unless they’ve been personally affected. The harm and human consequences simply do not resonate. 
Yet, the disability community has never lost sight of how budget cuts have undermined the lives and futures of people with disabilities.  It’s because they affect our daily lives.
One particularly glaring example is that disabled community college students have lost critical higher education supports from Disabled Students Programs and Services(DSPS) budget cuts.  Even though community college system-wide cuts averaged 10%, DSPS absorbed a 40% hit.
These disproportionate reductions began in 2009 after categorical programs like DSPS were targeted for massive cuts.  All budget cuts are painful, but these cuts are denying students equal educational opportunities. 
DSPS funds vital supportive services that help students keep pace with classroom demands.  It provides critical aids such as assistive technology, sign language interpreters, video captioning, readers and note takers, mobility assistance, transportation, and adapted or specialized classes.
Disabled students and their supporters are fighting back to protect their civil rights.  They know that DSPS is essential for the completion of their studies and job market entry. 
The loss of DSPS not only hurts their lives, but it leaves California with a less educated and skilled population. More importantly, they violate the hard-fought protections of the ADA and state and Federal laws.
A survey revealed some startling results.  It found that 26% of disabled students were forced to drop classes or withdraw from school.  Shamefully, 73% of students surveyed didn’t receive learning disability assessments.
Additional consequences were long delays for counseling and denial of alternative media and other accommodations. Some campuses blatantly violated Federal law by reducing or eliminating test examination accommodations.  
Students and disability advocates are mobilizing to restore DSPS funding and the filing of Federal civil rights discrimination complaints jumped by 30%.  The battle to restore DSPS funding is gaining momentum!
To put a human face on these cuts, students have testified before their community college district boards.  They also testified at the Legislature’s budget subcommittee hearings. 
At one hearing, a blind woman tearfully explained how she lost a prestigious scholarship opportunity after her GPA fell because her reader was laid off.  That classroom assistance was essential because math figures needed verbal translation. 
Another mobility-impaired student testified that losing transportation services made moving between campus buildings extremely painful.  It also affected her grades when attending some classes became impossible.
After listening to these heart-wrenching stories, the Chairs of the Senate and Assembly Education budget Subcommittees jointly authored a bill, SB 705, to restore $25 million for DSPS. 
The bill was unanimouslyvoted out of its first policy committee.  However, the struggle isn’t over because legislative process and budget negotiation obstacles still remain. 
The student mobilization is producing successful outcomes. The fight for their civil rights is sending the Legislature the disability community’s unifying rallying cry: 
Nothing About Us, Without Us.”

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