I grew up in Los Angeles and always regarded UCLA as one of the best universities in the world.
Even though I attended California State University, Northridge, for my bachelor’s degree, I still held UCLA in high regard. After graduating from CSUN, I pursued my master’s in education at the University of Pittsburgh. Many of my mentors, faculty and advisers were UCLA alumni or had worked at UCLA. It was clear when I decided to pursue my master’s in social work that returning home to attend UCLA was the right fit. I was accepted and awarded a competitive stipend. Things were happening seamlessly, as one would expect from a world-class institution like UCLA.
Then it came time for logistics. Having had a disability for over 24 years, I was not shy to the process of requesting accommodations. I was Deaf and needed the support of a sign language interpreter to be able to participate in the classroom. I had done this all through K-12, college, graduate school and as a working professional. I contacted the Office for Students with Disabilities, or OSD, at UCLA in February of 2015. I was told to contact the office later, when it got closer to the beginning of the quarter. I was hesitant, knowing that it takes time to schedule interpreters, but I scheduled a Gmail reminder for early August. I contacted the office again. This time I had an ID, a class schedule and even names of local interpreters. I was told this would be handled.
Orientation began late August and then the quarter started. I began interacting with the interpreters who OSD had scheduled through a third-party agency. I was baffled by the lack of qualified interpreters. I had an interpreter sit on stage during a seminar and scratch his balls. I had an interpreter who showed up late to my 8 a.m. class, interrupted the professor, dragged a chair across the room mid-lecture and then sat down blocking everyone’s path while sipping her coffee. Later that afternoon, a professor mistook the interpreter for a student. Another interpreter took out a large bag of Cheetos and crunched on them while streaming media on her iPad. Horror stories of unprofessionalism in all fields abound; but more than that, there was a lack of ethics, no cultural sensitivity for Deaf people, a lack of signing skills and most of the interpreters made errors that altered the message entirely – I did not realize until I later read it in the text.
I reached out to OSD, the agency, my own graduate adviser and academic staff on various occasions. I emphasized the need for professionalism, consistency and experience with course content. I emphasized that every day I had poor service I fell further behind in my coursework and the quality of my education at UCLA suffered. I was told to be patient, I was told to calm down. These things take time. I was told that my standards were too high, I was being picky. They were doing their best.
I was raised to advocate for myself. I have the privilege of my family’s access to advocacy efforts and resources. If I am feeling this way, what are other students with disabilities experiencing if they are not aware of their exploitation? How many other students are not getting quality support from UCLA because they might not know their own rights? Is this the best practice of this prestigious institution?
The hypocrisy of UCLA inviting and soliciting diverse students, including those with disabilities, and then failing to adequately support them is a disservice, not just to the specific students who are not being accommodated, but to the other students who can learn from their peers and see that people with disabilities are not held back by anything other than the very system claiming to support them.
Today, while checking my emails I saw an update from OSD. It was an invitation to attend Disability Awareness Week at UCLA. As I walked to my last class of the day, I recalled that this is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – a federal law that mandates reasonable accommodation and protects from discrimination.
At my last class of the day, it happened again, except this time it was worse. I had no interpreters show up. I ran down the hallway hoping they were lost. I emailed OSD. No response. I felt my heart sink, I could not lip-read or fake my way through this.
So I left. I left my UCLA class. Ironically, this was how I celebrated Disability Awareness Week at UCLA.
Kent is a graduate student at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.