The Beckwith Services program at the University of Illinois is known nationwide for being a top-tier resource for students with disabilities to be able to independently attend a university.
But with COVID-19 precautions in place, these students have lost the resource this semester and are unsure where they stand as the upcoming semester quickly approaches.
During a typical school year, Beckwith Residential Support Services, an accommodation through the division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) at the university, provides physically-disabled students with their everyday care as needed.
Described as a transitional program, the program’s website states that it “provides support for first floor residents of Nugent Hall with physical disabilities who require assistance in the performance of basic activities of daily living.” These services include 24-hour care provided by the personal assistants and a pager system housed in resident’s rooms.
There are currently 55 students who use wheelchairs. On average, the Beckwith program, which has been in place since 1981, has 65 to 85 personal assistants working for the program that are trained per semester.
This year, though, students involved in the program were informed just before returning for fall semester that they would not be provided these services. The program leads explained to students that this decision was made because they did not have enough personal assistants to run the program along with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students had to choose to come back to campus or stay home, dependent on if they were able to hire their own private personal assistants or not.
Currently, the program’s return has not yet been confirmed. As the spring semester approaches, students still have many questions regarding their status on campus in the coming months.
The Beckwith program is overseen by the College of Applied Health Sciences within the university. Dean Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell said that the institution has “long been committed” to serving students with disabilities.
“Despite a great deal of effort by both the university, the students and their families, we were not able to secure enough [personal assistants] to operate the Beckwith program this semester,” said Hanley-Maxwell in an email, “…the health and safety of the students associated with the Beckwith program has been and continues to be a top priority for the university.”
Kim Collins, interim director of DRES, said in an email that they are “on track to open for spring 2021 semester and are working with all residents regarding their return.”
Zain Bando, a junior at the University of Illinois, is one of the students who made the decision to stay home for the semester. But before this decision was made, Bando helped lead two separate change.org petitions advocating for him and his fellow students.
In July, these students were informed that their ADA-accessible rooms in Nugent Hall, the dorm where the Beckwith program is housed, were no longer being made available for the fall semester. The program’s residents then began corresponding with both Beckwith and DRES to try and secure their housing again, but no further developments were made.
In response, Bando and fellow student Barrett Patton created the first petition. With students using platforms such as Instagram and Twitter to spread the word, the petition received nearly 8,000 signatures and written support from current students, alumni and community members.
By early August, the students had once again secured their housing assignments in Nugent Hall. Despite this, services through Beckwith were not being provided, and still are not. While some students were able to come back to campus without Beckwith’s personal assistant services, others were left with no choice but to stay home for the semester.
“It’s been a very difficult situation overall,” said Bando. “It’s not ideal that I eventually chose to stay at home, I wish it would have worked out differently. But I think that overall, the huge part that’s a positive of this all is that we’re advocating to show that our population deserves to be on campus, even though we didn’t get everything we wanted initially.”
A second petition was created by Patton advocating for fellow disabled students and the reopening of the program for the spring semester of 2021.
The division of Disability Resources and Educational Services states its mission “is to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from the programs, services and activities of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign through the identification and enactment of reasonable modifications to institutional policies and procedures, the provision of effective auxiliary aids and services, the establishment of innovative educational services, and the pursuit of interdisciplinary disability research.”
Bando said that the support provided by the DRES and Beckwith programs was the number one reason why he chose to attend the University of Illinois. He explained that he thought living independently and attending college would not be an option for him, but these programs gave him the support to do so.
“I’m still proud to be an Illini, but I would have expected a little bit more from them during this time,” said Bando. “If you’re going to open up the entire university, you should open it up to everyone and not discriminate against people who have disabilities and are fully admitted students to the university, trying to get their college degrees just like everyone else.”