Accessibility concerns mounting for UI students with disabilities

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — It’s an unusual start to the semester for all University of Illinois students, but some students are facing even more challenges.

A month ago, junior Zain Bando and other students with disabilities fought for Nugent Hall on UI’s campus to reopen. The building has dorms that are more accessible. They won that fight. Now they face a new barrier. “We feel that the way the university has handled the situation since our rooms reopened has been terrible,” said he said.

The Beckwith program, which pairs those students with personal assistants, won’t be available this fall. Those personal assistants help students like Bando with everyday tasks that able-bodied people take for granted. University leaders told Bando they eliminated Beckwith because of a lack of staff, but he believes there were other options. “They should’ve worked with us to figure out how we could’ve made a modified program work through the semester,” he explained.

Students with accessibility concerns are now responsible for hiring their own personal assistants, which Bando says can be costly. He feels it is against what the university stands for to not offer this option. “Anyone that’s like an incoming freshman, this news is devastating to them because that’s the reason they chose Illinois is because they could have that sense of independence.”

Bando also fears this could last beyond this semester. “I don’t see the program reopening in the spring, and neither do any of my peers.”

There is a petition urging the university to reconsider. We reached out to the university about why they canceled the program. We did not hear back from them before this story aired in our 5 p.m. newscast, but they provided the below statement shortly afterward.

As an institution, we have long been committed to serving students with disabilities, including through our Beckwith program. That program has many components and offers a range of services. As part of the Beckwith program, the university provides Personal Assistant (PA) care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Despite a great deal of effort by both the university, the students and their families, we were not able to secure enough PAs to operate the Beckwith program this semester.

There is a shortage of human service workers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened that.

We have assigned our students who have been able to secure PA coverage accessible rooms in our residence halls. But we cannot provide the level and quality of care necessary to operate the Beckwith program this semester.

We will continue to try to secure PAs for the spring semester in hopes we can restart the Beckwith program then. Not offering the Beckwith program this semester has been the most heartbreaking impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for all of us. But as with all of our students, the health and safety of the students in the Beckwith program has been and continues to be a top priority for the university.

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