UCLA’s Ableist Policy Change — And What You Can Do About It

Image Description: A black logo for the UCLA Disabled Student Union against a white background.

This article was published in association with the Disabled Student Union of UCLA.

Transitioning back to in-person instruction disproportionately disadvantages disabled people, who face persistent structural barriers to educational equity. A policy change that was recently announced by UCLA will make the playing field even more uneven.

On May 28, students registered with the Center for Accessible Education (CAE) received an email notifying them that their priority enrollment is now capped at 15 units. Prior to this change, CAE-registered students could enroll in as many units as their college allowed during their priority enrollment pass. 

Priority enrollment is a pillar of accessible education for many disabled students, whose class selection is already constrained by things like medication schedules, inaccessible environments, and transportation. Priority enrollment allows us to have more flexibility designing a course schedule that will minimally impact our education and wellbeing. 

This unit cap will cause harm on both individual and collective levels. Many students will inevitably have to jeopardize their health, take lower course loads, or drop out of school — exactly what the Americans with Disabilities Act and CAE are supposed to protect against. Furthermore, capping priority enrollment will lower the retention rate for disabled students and weaken UCLA’s diversity and culture. 

Since the unit cap for CAE students is now equal to that of student athletes and students with dependents, you may be wondering why disabled students got such a luxury in the first place, and what we need that many units for. If other people can make it work with a unit cap, perhaps we should be able to as well. First, I reject the idea that we should be fighting among each other for accommodations — they are not limited resources, and the real enemy is UCLA’s bigotry and inflexibility. But, putting that aside for now, there are many other reasons disabled students depend on uncapped priority enrollment to continue attending UCLA.

In their statement rejecting this policy change, UCLA’s Disabled Student Union offered several reasons disabled students depend on uncapped priority enrollment to attend UCLA. These include logistical difficulties (e.g., medication schedules, transportation, service dogs, and ableist professors) that severely limit disabled students’ possibilities for classes. Since UCLA is planning on pursuing a hybrid education model in the fall, with mostly in-person classes, immunocompromised students will likely have few options for online courses and will need priority access to those courses. 

My experience as a disabled student at UCLA is a testament to how unforgiving higher education can be to disabled students. Especially at hyper-capitalist institutions like UCLA, our ability to perform at the same levels as non-disabled students is already severely curtailed by ableist professors, hostile attitudes toward disabled students on an institutional level, and a fundamental misunderstanding of disability. UCLA is an inaccessible environment for so many, and it’s exclusionary and ableist to take away the few points of access we have — like priority enrollment. 

This policy change is blatantly ableist, and the manner in which UCLA administrators communicated it to students is shameful and cowardly. The stated purpose of this change is to “prevent priority enrollment from having an impact on availability of courses for students not receiving priority enrollment.” However, their reasoning for doing so is deeply flawed. 

The decision to change the priority enrollment cap for CAE students was made in June 2020 by the Priority Enrollment Ad Hoc Committee, which was charged to study priority enrollment at UCLA by the Undergraduate Council of the Academic Senate. However, in this “study,” the committee did not inform or consult disabled students, disabled student leaders, and disability studies faculty.

To be clear, UCLA administrators knew of the policy change for a year but waited until 4:21 p.m. on the Friday before a three-day holiday weekend and two weeks before priority enrollment opens to announce it. As a result, students were unable to contact UCLA staff for three days. Clearly, they knew they would face extensive backlash for their blatantly discriminatory policy and sought to minimize the impact. This follows a pattern of CAE and UCLA administrators refusing to be transparent with disabled students.

After facing enormous pressure from disabled students and allies, the CAE sent another email to students in an attempt to absolve themselves, which only made their position more indefensible and the logical inconsistencies in their argument more visible. 

Their argument is that because disabled students constitute the largest portion of priority enrollment recipients and drop more classes than other recipients, they should receive fewer priority enrollment units to ensure that students not receiving priority enrollment have the chance to enroll in their classes.

We all know how competitive UCLA enrollment can be, but capping disabled students’ units to rectify this is a lazy, ableist, and deeply flawed response. Why should our accommodations be taken away to fix an arbitrary imbalance in priority enrollment that the institution created itself? Why should we be directly and immediately harmed in order to ‘fix’ an abstraction of harm projected onto the entire student population? 

In fact, the arguments UCLA administrators laid out in their email actually support the conclusion that our priority enrollment should remain uncapped. Yes, disabled students drop classes at a higher rate than nondisabled students. I’ve dropped classes because they unexpectedly interfered with my medication schedules and because I realized the workload was too demanding or the subject matter not interesting. However, it’s often because of ableist professors who refuse to be understanding, flexible, or accommodating. Of course we will resort to dropping classes when we are forced to advocate for ourselves in a discriminatory and insensitive learning environment. Rather than focusing on the hostile environments that create barriers for students, UCLA has decided to “solve” a problem of their own creation by increasing those barriers and trusting that we, like so many times before, will pick up the slack. 

Disabled students need uncapped enrollment precisely because we drop classes at a higher rate. If we don’t have the ability to enroll in buffer classes, knowing that we’ll likely have to drop one, it stunts our academic progress, leads to later graduation and possible loss of scholarships or financial aid, and hurts retention of disabled students. 

Administrators ended their email by acknowledging that the announcement’s timing gave students little time to come up with an alternate plan. Comfortingly, though, they added: “However, the CAE expects that student schedules can still be finalized in time to address accessibility issues related to transportation, caregiver support, alternative format, etc.”

This paternalistic, dismissive, and classist response perfectly illustrates UCLA’s attitude toward disabled students: we are on our own, endlessly expected to navigate a hostile world, climbing over boulders UCLA throws in our paths toward a degree. While UCLA addresses disabled students as a monolith, their policies make it especially difficult for multiply marginalized people to succeed. Their expectation that all disabled students will have the time, money, and support to make last-minute arrangements displays their ignorance of the complexities of disabled life. 

We deserve so much more than the crumbs we are thrown and told to be grateful for. We deserve more than an ableist administration and a Center for Accessible Education that fails disabled students more than it helps them. We deserve to be listened to, supported, and trusted to understand our own health and lives — after all, we’re the experts. 

To voice your opposition to UCLA’s priority enrollment change for disabled students, sign the petition linked here.

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