Cal State Fullerton’s disability advocacy student club is taking on university administrators, challenging their decision to close a popular computer lab located on the first floor of the Pollak Library, once called their “safe space.”

While the university provides meeting spaces for other clubs, it doesn’t for students with disabilities. 

That’s something that Abled Advocators, a coalition of students who have organized the campus’ award-winning disability advocacy club, say must change. 

They’ve already spearheaded a petition drive on campus and after pressing since October, now have a scheduled meeting with administrators set for Monday. 

“There is not currently a designated place for DSS students,” said Joshua Galvan, Vice President of Abled Advocators, in a recent interview on a video call, referring to the university’s Office of Disability Support Services (DSS).

 “It’s very difficult to find a place to study or even just socialize on campus,” he said.

Forging a Sense of Community

Because not everyone identifies as disabled or registers as Disabled for school, it is complicated to provide an accurate number of how many students with disabilities there are on campus.

Lori Palmerton, Cal State Fullerton’s Director of Disability Support Services (DSS) estimates that “national average suggests 19.4% of college students have a qualified disability.”

That’s more than 8,000 students, based on estimates of the university’s population 

“At CSUF, we are serving about 6.5% of the student population.” said Palmerton adding that “2,750 students and increasing daily” are registered with the DSS.

Cal State Fullerton on Dec.1, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The university’s support services office for students with disabilities is organized as a  “civil rights office committed to providing students with disabilities access and an equal opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and abilities.” 

Officials state their mission is “Framed through the lens of human dignity and social justice in order for students to acquire a sense of agency, advocacy and equitable, meaningful experiences.”

However, some of the students who are registered with the DSS say they do not feel included, valued or heard on campus. 

“I’ve always had this feeling, since I entered the school in 2017, that when it comes to DSS issues, they have always taken a backseat,” said Galvan.

Finding and Losing a Safe Space

Disabled students once called the DSS computer lab located on the first floor of the Polka Library their “safe space.” According to the DSS Director the computer lab has been in the library for at least five years. The room was equipped with six computer stations, a scanner and a CCTV for students to use during the library’s business hours.

The computer lab was closed by the DSS office when students returned to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. 

At that point, disabled students oftentimes ended up in the basement.

Abled Advocators student leaders walk down to the basement of the building on campus where they have been meeting every other week. “It is not very accessible, we prefer rooms that are on the first floor of a building,” said Galvan. Abled advocators have to reserve rooms in advance. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Palmerton said their aim was to heighten accessibility for the students.

“When the campus was closed due to COVID, Information Technology installed the accessible software provided in the computer lab to all the computers within the library, which made all the computers in the library available with required technology for students with disabilities.” Palmerton said via email. 

“As a result, students with disabilities have access to the assistive technology at any computer of their choosing within the library, just like every other CSUF student.” she added. 

Yet the students with Abled Advocators want Palmerton and the DSS office to acknowledge that students with disabilities face different challenges. 

“People with disabilities tend to have different experiences than others, noisy, crowded and bright rooms make it very difficult for some disabled students to study” said Galvan

According to the library’s website there are three options of study spaces that they provide; group study space, quiet study space and other study spaces. Study rooms require a reservation and can only be used by enrolled students up to three times per week. All room reservations are for a three period hour of time and are intended only for academic and study-related purposes.

“The dss computer lab was an accessible space, it was simple, there were no reservations, you could just go in and get things done, most importantly it was a safe space for us.” said Galvan over a video call. 

President of Abled Advocators Kaelyn Rojas, left, walks through campus with Joshua Galvan the Vice President of Abled Advocators on Dec. 1, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Pressing For Change

Kaelyn Rojas, President of the Abled Advocators began a petition on the website Change, with a goal of 500 signatures to demand an Identity Center on campus. The petition was posted on Nov 3 and has gathered 241 signatures as of Friday, Dec 2.

“Students with disabilities at Cal State University have felt that they have not been treated equitably on campus and we want to have an Identity center like how other communities have them.” said club President Kaelyn Rojas.

“We want to be seen on campus just like everybody else and we feel very ignored right now.” Rojas said.

Supporters have left messages on the petition hoping that CSUF faculty will take notice. 

One comment by Monique says “I really feel we need space to go study without time limits and excessive noise.” Marlen comments, “In an already ableist society this center is urgent especially on campus.”

Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Student Affairs offers spaces for a number of groups under their Diversity Initiatives & Resources Centers, known as DIRC.

The centers support students by building communities that foster a sense of belonging, creating opportunities to engage in self-discovery and critical inquiry, and serving as a hub for resources in inclusive and affirming spaces. 

A central goal is to “create engagement opportunities that empower, educate, and activate students in the areas of social justice, equity, and anti-racism.” 

Currently DIRC has six identity-based resource centers; The African American Resource Center, The Asian Pacific American Resource Center, Latinx Community Resource Center, LGBT Queer Resource Center, Titan Dreamers Resource Center, Women’s Resouce Center. 

“Each center offers students a home away from home, an inclusive space for students to be their authentic selves, and co-curricular engagement opportunities for students to develop deeper understanding of their identities and those of others,” according to DIRC webpage.  

“Students of any identity are welcome to explore any of the spaces whether or not they identify with the centers, according to the DIRC. 

According to students like Galvan, when DSS faculty decided to close their safe space they weren’t very transparent about it. 

“I contacted the DSS office several times but after a while I just got so frustrated because they kept giving me the same answer, that they were updating the software on the computers.” says Galvan.

The room where student organization, Abled Advocators, used to organize and meet with fellow students. Dec. 1, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Rojas eventually was given a different response, saying “I believe she said it was an issue of finances, they didn’t have enough money from the school to keep it going and that’s why it had to be shut down.”

When Janica Michelle Martinez Torres, who works as a student activist with many groups on campus, heard what was happening with the DSS students, she quickly sprung into action.

“This whole time they were telling members that they were updating software or doing IT maintenance but it was taking over a semester.” says Torres.

Administrators said software updates made the computer lab unnecessary. 

“With the accessible software available on every library computer, the computer lab was no longer needed and it was repurposed by the Pollak Library to meet other student needs.” Palmerton said.

“We notified students several times through the DSS Newsletters and via Social Media.”

The DSS has 313 posts on their Instagram but none mention the DSS Computer Lab closing.

On Oct. 10, Abled Advocators posted on their Instagram that they were having an Open Forum to discuss the DSS computer Lab. 

“Hello Advocators!” read the post. “This Saturday on October 15 from 11am to 1pm, we will be hosting an open forum to discuss the loss of the DSS Lab. We want to know how you feel about this, what the room meant to you and how we can replace it.” the post read. 

Tagged on the top left corner of the post is the DSS Instagram page.

“When we met that Saturday, October 15, we invited DSS. Not one representative showed up and they knew that this meeting was taking place to address the closure of the DSS computer lab and what we needed to do to get the room back.” said the club’s outreach coordinator, Patricia Kuresa-Boone.

“I did not know the DSS had a newsletter.” said Rojas when asked if she received an email.

“I am a student with a disability, part of the DSS and I did not know the room was closing. You have all of the DSS students’ emails, why did you not tell us? And not only did they not tell us, they lied! Boone exclaimed over the phone.

Palmerton said the DSS office was always transparent as to why the computer lab was closing. 

“The function of the space, which was to provide computers with accessible software, was no longer needed since all computers in the library have the software,” she said.  

Yet the designated space also gave the students an important sense of community, something administrators keep failing to acknowledge much less address. 

“The thing is, the library is not specifically for disabled students, anyone can access those rooms with a reservation. So, no, it doesn’t replace nor is it an alternative for what was taken away. The library is not designed to create belonging or community.” said Torres. 

Forging Advocates

The Abled Advocators group is known throughout campus and has been recognized by their peers for the advocacy work they do on and off campus.

Last year, in May 2021 the advocacy group was awarded the Student Life & Leadership Tuffy Award for “Student Organization of the Year” out of 150 submissions. 

The university’s Student Life and Leadership page describes The Tuffy Awards

as “a time for everyone to come together to recognize the virtual contributions of student organizations to CSUF and the Titan Community.”

“We worked really hard to make sure none of the members felt isolated or alone during the covid pandemic lockdowns when we all had to transition to virtual,” said Boone 

“And we continue to do outreach, but it’s difficult to recruit people and let them know that we are here because we have no space in campus that we can all go to and meet up and discuss.” Boone said.

“How can we continue our awareness and advocacy work on campus that we are awarded for? added Boone.

“The DSS is refusing to really listen to disabled voices on campus, they know what we want, they know our questions, they know how we feel. They just don’t care about us, they showed us that the day they took our space away” said Boone. 

Palmerton says there’s a process that the students go through to get their own space. 

“Obtaining space on campus involves conversations with stakeholders across Divisions, including but not limited to, the Division of Academic Affairs and Division of Administration and Finance. If students want a study space, then DSS has provided information to students via newsletters and social media regarding how to access study spaces.” Palmerton concluded. 

Yet student activists say administrators haven’t been easy to work with. 

Kaelyn Rojas, President of Abled Advocators said she first contacted Torrell Foree, the Assistant Director for Diversity Education & Campus Partnerships via email on Oct. 27. When she received no response she followed on Nov. 7.

Foree replied on Nov. 29 and they are scheduled to meet Monday, Dec. 5 to discuss how students are feeling about the DSS computer lab being taken away and to find out how they can obtain an Identity Center.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the Pollak Library.

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