Illustration by James Membreno PCC suffers from a lack of funding to DSP&S.
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Pasadena City College’s (PCC) Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSP&S) provides programs and accommodations intended to create an accessible learning environment for students with disabilities, but they have left at least one student to fend for himself.

Philbert Tjong is a computer science major at PCC and is legally blind. Tjong uses a cane to navigate PCC’s campus, but he still requires assistance inside and outside of the classroom.

Tjong has requested a scribe — someone hired specifically to assist with note-taking and in-class assignments — from DSP&S several times. Each time, he was simply offered a copy of his peers’ notes.

Tjong said he was denied the accommodation he needed and that his academic performance reflected it.

“I spent two years trying to take a math class,” said Tjong. “I always thought I was the problem.”

Tjong stated that he struggled in each of the four math classes simply because he could not see what was being written on the board by his professors and had no way of obtaining the information.

“I just need someone to copy down what’s on the board,” said Tjong. “Just what I’m not physically able to see.”

Ricardo Castillo, who is an education support specialist at DSP&S, stated that the goal of DSP&S is to provide “equal access to the classes and content.” However, students with disabilities require equitable access, not equal access.

The difference between these two words cannot be overstated. Equality is giving each student the exact same opportunities. Equity is giving each student what they need to succeed. Many disabled students require equitable opportunities — not equal ones — to succeed.

Castillo and Associate Dean of Special Services Ketmani Kouanchao were unable to explain why PCC does not offer scribe services.

“We work with all students with verified disabilities,” said Castillo. “That’s all I can say about that.”

Castillo refused to answer additional questions regarding the absence of a scribe program, which prompted Kouanchao to comment on the matter.

“In the future, I would talk to Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) to see what kind of scribe program they offer,” said Kouanchao after it was noted that nearby community college Mt. SAC offers a comprehensive scribe program.

But these new accommodations would come too late for many students at PCC. Tjong has found an effective solution to this problem: don’t go to PCC.

Currently, Tjong splits his time between PCC and Mt. SAC. Tjong has decided that he will attend Mt. SAC full-time in the fall, instead of returning to PCC, because their disabled students program — called ACCESS — provides him with more effective accommodations than PCC.

“I’m taking a majority of my classes [at Mt. SAC],” said Tjong. “It’s working a whole lot better. I have the accommodations I need.”

It isn’t just the absence of programs that set up students for failure. According to Tjong, while the programs at PCC may be comparable in numbers to those at Mt. Sac, the quality of those programs is severely lacking.

At PCC, Tjong did not receive assistance from DSP&S in orienting himself on campus or finding his classes, which made navigating the campus extremely difficult.

“I relied on the kindness of staff, friends and strangers,” said Tjong. “There was no service to help me.”

On his first day at Mt. SAC, Tjong had a completely different experience.

“I had access to someone who was willing to do an orientation of the school,” said Tjong. “They showed me where my classes were. They showed me how to get to and from.”

In addition to scribe services and comprehensive specialized orientations, Mt. SAC offers several tutors trained to assist students with disabilities.

According to Kouanchao, a similar program is set to begin this week at PCC. This comes after a hard push from several students — including Tjong — at a board of trustees meeting in December. Tjong addressed, among other things, the lack of specialized tutors at PCC.

“Tutoring is a key part of success,” said Castillo. But Tjong wanted to know why it took so long for DSP&S to implement this program; a question that would go unanswered.

The push was a success, albeit with a caveat; DSP&S will only be utilizing two tutors — one for math and one for English. These tutors will be responsible for serving the students of DSP&S, although Kouanchao stated that there are plans to train tutoring center tutors to better help disabled students.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, the two DSP&S tutors would have been responsible for 1,955 students, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. This is a dramatic decrease from the year before, where 2,590 students were registered with DSP&S. Tjong believes that this trend will continue.

“I’m starting to see an exodus,” said Tjong. He believes that the decrease in registered students is directly related to the quality of services offered by DSP&S.

Tjong said that, unlike PCC, other institutions are designed with disabled students in mind. For example, Mt. SAC offers designated on-campus transportation specifically for students with mobility impairments.

Regarding on-campus transportation at PCC, Castillo stated, “Campus Police Cadets would assist with that.” He went on to explain that although there is no designated transportation services, Cadets are always available to transport students who need assistance.

After explaining the many issues he has encountered, Tjong expressed frustration with DSP&S, stating, “Empty promises is the overall theme [when dealing with DSP&S].”

“I essentially wasted two years of my life thinking that I was the problem,” said Tjong. “Thinking that I was doing something wrong, that I didn’t need the accommodations. But, as a matter of fact, if I don’t have them, I’m not going to succeed.”

Regarding this particular student’s struggle, Kouanchao stated, “There are some things we can work on. Things do take time.”

“We’re here to support and see our students flourish,” said Castillo. “We need to hear our students’ voices.”

But, according to Tjong, the attempts by DSP&S to listen to their students’ concerns have failed. And as a result, Tjong has decided that he will attend a college designed to help him succeed, instead of one at which he feels he is doomed to fail.

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