Podcast transcript: For disability advocate, helping students navigate campus is personal

This is Fiat Vox, a podcast that gives you an inside look at why people around the world are talking about UC Berkeley. I’m Anne Brice, a reporter for Berkeley News in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Every morning, when Derek Coates comes to work at UC Berkeley, he does what we all do — he checks his email. Except he listens to them. Really fast.

[Natural sound: Email being read at top speed]

He lost his eyesight eight years ago when he was 41. Since then, he’s had to figure out how to do all the things he was doing before but without the ability to see.

And a little side note here: Derek’s office is next to a car wash, so if it gets really noisy in the background, that’s what that sound is.

Derek: I have it speeded up because my mind has adjusted such that if I do it at the normal speed, it’s like twoooooo oooohhhhh twwwoooo, you know, it’s like super super slow and that just doesn’t help.

Derek is a disability compliance officer at UC Berkeley. It’s his job to make sure students with disabilities are getting the accommodations they need to be successful at Berkeley.

He says there’s a huge range of what’s considered a disability.

Derek: There are so many different disabilities that could impact a major life activity that create barriers to a person’s capacity to be academically successful.

So you’ve got your classic sensory-based or mobility-based. On the invisible side of disability, you’ve got a whole host of things. It could be chronic pain, it could be diabetes, it could be Irritable Bowel Syndrome. You could have bipolar disorder, you could have ADHD, you could have a learning disability, dysphagia…

And even though the Disabled Students’ Program works really hard to support students with disabilities, there are times when a student needs someone to step in and be their advocate. That’s where Derek comes in.

[Music: “Lakeside Path” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Derek: At the end of the day, the point is to find out, okay, what is going on? Are the compensatory strategies engaged? Is the support system engaged? Because if they handled the disability part, how it’s impacting them, they’ve already demonstrated because they were admitted here that they can do the work. But the disability pulls them away from being able to being able to perform those academic tasks. 

It’s a job that requires him to solve problems — to figure out how to reconfigure an environment to help a student with a disability be successful. It’s something that he’s had to do for himself since he was a kid.

Derek first found out when he was 10 that he was going to lose his eyesight. It was during one of those health fairs in elementary school, where doctors do a basic screening, checking kids’ spines for scoliosis, their hair for lice.

And when they looked into Derek’s eyes, they found something.

Derek: The doctor, this really astute doctor, sees some dark patches, dark splotches on my eyes, on my retina.

He found out that he had Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, and was going to slowly lose his eyesight.

Derek: Nobody knew anything about that at the time. And I’m 10 and you’re telling me I’m going to go blind. Right? Really you guys? This is the best you can do?

He’d already begun to lose his night vision. When he’d walk into a dark movie theater, his eyes wouldn’t adjust like other people’s. But he didn’t really notice it at first, he was a kid. But then, his peripheral vision started to go. By the 10th grade, he was legally blind. He could still see, but it was like looking into a really narrow tunnel.

Derek: But I played football. The only position I could play in which I could play football with that vision was center. So I was a center, I snapped the ball. Because all you have to deal with is the person right in front of you. You don’t have to pull down the line and hit anybody.

As his visual world shrunk, he would keep figuring out how to navigate the world in a new way. As an adult, after he walked into a fire hydrant, he got a cane to help him walk. And after he lost his vision completely, he got a seeing eye dog.

[Natural sound: “Good boy, good boy. Forward.” Derek walks through campus with Afton, his seeing eye dog]

Every day Derek and Afton walk through campus as a duo. They’re always together. And Derek says having a dog has really helped him get around. But some days it can still be really hard.

[Music: “Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Derek: It’s not easy to be dependent on other people. I mean, there are days I don’t want to be. At all. I want to be totally ruggedly independent. But then something will happen where it’s like, “Yeah, yeah. This is what you thought today was going to be like!” (laughs)

But he just keeps learning and adjusting, and helping students find their own way on campus.

For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.

To learn more about the Disabled Students’ Program or to apply for services, visit dsp.berkeley.edu.  

You can subscribe to the Fiat Vox podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts . For more UC Berkeley news, you can visit news.berkeley.edu. If you have a great story idea, send us an email at news@berkeley.edu.