Ed O’Neill, who lived outside Nevada City, Calif., was visiting his father in San Francisco in April 1977 when he saw the news clips.
Disability rights advocates, in a bold stroke that placed their movement in the public eye for the first time, had occupied federal office buildings in San Francisco and several other cities across the country, demanding enforcement of the nation’s first major law barring discrimination against the disabled—Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
O’Neill, who had suffered from polio since childhood, went downtown to offer a few dollars for the cause, but was quickly drawn into a nearly month-long occupation. There, O’Neill said, he met one of the most remarkable people he would ever encounter—a powerful, 21-year-old quadriplegic activist named Cecilia “CeCe” Weeks who was handling everything from media relations to food distribution.
“She was very strong and articulate and forceful and she happened to be beautiful,” he said. “She was one of those really special people you meet four or five times in your life. They’re dynamos, they’re beacons.”
With pressure mounting in San Francisco and Washington, the Carter administration issued regulations enforcing Section 504, a predecessor to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, on April 28. The disability rights movement had won its first, major national victory and, back in the Bay Area, a local leader was born.
“CeCe was very young when the 504 demonstration took place ... and she grew into a very important leader in the last few weeks of the sit-in,” said Kitty Cone, a longtime activist who participated in the occupation. “She had a very quiet style of leadership, but it was very strong.”
Last fall, Weeks died after a prolonged bout with bladder cancer that had restricted the activist, artist and cook to her home for much of the last year and a half of her life. This Sunday, on what would have been her 48th birthday—on a day that City Council has decreed CeCe Weeks Commemoration Day—Weeks’ family and friends will honor her with a private gathering at her old home on Spaulding Avenue and a tree planting in Berkeley’s Ohlone Park.
Weeks was born in Palmer, Alaska on July 27, 1955, and spent parts of her childhood in California, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as her father, a construction engineer, pursued work around the country.
“When I was a kid I was really wild,” said Weeks, in a January 1996 interview with There It Is magazine. “My parents didn’t have any control over me as long as I had a window that worked. I’d be on the roof and out of there without anybody knowing.”
In 1969, at age 14, Weeks leapt off a diving board into a shallow lake in Minnesota and broke her neck, nearly drowning.
“For the first couple of weeks it was hit or miss whether she was going to make it,” said her brother Stephan Weeks, an East Bay electrical engineer.
Weeks spent about a year at a hospital in St. Paul, Minn. and a year at a rehabilitation center in Robbinsdale, Minn., where she met an attendant named Bronson West, who would become a long-term romantic partner, according to O’Neill.
After West moved to the East Bay, Weeks made her way to Berkeley at age 19, eager to soak up the Bay Area birthplace of the Beat culture of the 1950s.
“I wanted to see the world of Jack Kerouac,” she said in the 1996 interview. “I had to see the Mediterraneum Cafe where Allen Ginsberg washed dishes.”
In 1974, a young Weeks met and befriended Ed Roberts, a founding father of the disability rights movement, and was soon swept up in local activism, according to the interview. She spent several years doing advocacy work for the Berkeley-based Center for Independent Living and was involved in creating Berkeley’s first emergency attendant program, which provided on-the-spot care for disabled people whose attendants were home sick or unavailable in a crisis.
In the meantime, friends say, Weeks managed to produce a record by a local band, zip around to punk rock shows in her wheelchair, get heavily involved in American Indian activism, develop an abiding interest in spiritualism and earn degrees in public administration, clinical psychology and fine art at Antioch University West and New College of California in the 1970s and 1980s.
“She would zoom all over town,” said O’Neill, remembering Weeks coming home from cultural events drenched from the rain. “She’d come in and she was cold and wet, but it wouldn’t stop her.”
In 1995, Weeks launched Easy Does It, providing the city with its most comprehensive emergency attendant program to date. She served as executive director of the program until 1998.
“It provides a vital service,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring, who is restricted to a wheelchair. “It’s really life-saving.”
In addition to her public activism, Weeks was known for her personal generosity. Friends say she turned her home on Spaulding Avenue, which she shared with O’Neill and a rotating cast of roommates, into a community meeting space and a haven for activists, many of them poor, heading through town.
“She drew people to her,” said Arlene Magarian, a friend and on-and-off caregiver. “People would come to her with their problems. She gave people hope and encouragement.”
Kari Bradley, 26, an attendant who worked for Weeks in the last year and a half of her life, said her boss had a profound impact on her life. When she took the job, Bradley said, she was leaving behind a corporate position in San Francisco and looking for a new direction.
“[Weeks] was definitely a catalyst in my life,” said Bradley, who now lives in the Spaulding Avenue home. “She could see so globally. She was about civil rights for all people...My vision of the world or my interest in the world became much bigger.”
But in the fall of 2002, decades of activism and inspiration came to an end. Weeks died at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Medical Center on Nov. 8 and the house on Spaulding Avenue hasn’t been the same since, according to O’Neill.
“I can’t describe how it is to lose her,” he said. “It’s like the center is gone. It’s like a great soul is not here.”