Roberts Made Berkeley Leader in Fight for Rights

By Lydia Gans Special to the Planet
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:43:00 AM

Last week several hundred people gathered at the Ashby BART station to celebrate the groundbreaking for the planned Ed Roberts Campus. The campus will provide space under one roof for a number of organizations and facilities for people with disabilities. It will occupy the east parking lot of the station, which will be temporarily unavailable for patrons. Parking will be restored when the building is completed.  

The construction of the Ed Roberts Campus represents the culmination of a history of activism by people with disabilities. It all started in Berkeley in the sixties with the Independent Living Movement when disabled people, who had traditionally been marginalized and confined in institutions, began to demand access to the opportunities and all the rights to fully participate in society. Ed Roberts put Berkeley in the forefront of that movement, and the campus named for him will be a center for providing services and advocacy for disabled people locally, nationally and worldwide.  

In 1964 Ed Roberts enrolled at UC Berkeley. He had had polio when he was 14 and was severely disabled, requiring a respirator to breathe and a wheelchair to move around. The university had no facilities for him in the dorms so they housed him in a room in Cowell Hospital. Subsequently, other disabled students were also housed there. Keeping them isolated and treated like sick people was not the way they wanted to live. In 1969 they moved into apartments and obtained funding to hire people to provide their personal care—the program now called In Home Support Services (IHSS). Following the example of other activist groups, they formed the “Rolling Quads.” They later changed the name to the Disabled Students’ Union. 

The Disabled Students’ Union reached out in an effort to provide more opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in the social and academic life of the community. In 1972 they formed the Center for Independent Living (CIL), which became a model for independent living centers throughout the United States and the world. Run by and for people with disabilities, CIL provides a wide range of services.  

Another function of CIL has been to advocate for rights of disabled people. One of its early successes was coordination with the city of Berkeley to create curb cuts. This turned out to be a boon not only to wheelchair users but also to mothers pushing baby strollers and these days is much appreciated by people using the ubiquitous roller bags. It’s hard now to imagine what it was like for a person in a wheelchair being downtown and having to find a way to get from the street onto the sidewalk just to go into a store or the library or a movie.  

Ed Roberts’ long-time friend and colleague Joan Leon recalls, “Ed always said that we learned from the women’s movement, from the civil rights movement, (and) we learned from Saul Alinsky.”  

The Independent Living Movement grew into the Disability Rights Movement, which ultimately resulted in achieving congressional passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. 

Roberts was a charismatic and eloquent speaker and an astute politician. In 1975 then-Governor Jerry Brown appointed him director of the California Department of Rehabilitation. There was a nice irony in this since in 1961 that same agency had refused to provide services for Ed because they determined that he was too severely disabled and would never be employable. During the eight years he served in that position, he spurred the establishment of other CILs and the provision of rehabilitation services in other areas of the country. 

With the end of Brown’s term in office, Ed and his colleagues, Joan Leon and Judy Heumann, began to seek funding to establish a new organization with still broader outreach. In 1983 they founded the World Institute on Disability (WID) in Oakland. More than a think tank, WID defines itself as a “nonprofit public policy, research and training center dedicated to creating awareness and bringing about policy changes regarding how society views and treats people with disabilities.” 

In 1985 Ed Roberts received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. As president of WID he traveled all over the world, advocating and influencing the lives of people with disabilities. He was featured on “60 Minutes” and other news shows. He died in 1995 leaving a legacy of organizing and activism in the true Berkeley tradition.  

Roberts’ mother, Zona Roberts, reflects that “it’s gratifying after all the work that he did ... to think of the people who used to feel sorry for the ‘poor little crippled kid’ ... and he grew up and matured and learned how to do politics and (accomplish) things he really believed in.”  

His work has affected “families, the community, the city—and the world,” she said. 

The Ed Roberts Campus will bring together WID and CIL and other agencies that provide services for people with disabilities. The building will house a youth sports program, technology services, legal services and a program focused on families dealing with disabilities. The plans include meeting rooms, a fitness center and cafe, and a child development center, and more will be added as needs develop.  

The design of the building is unique, incorporating a plethora of features that make it completely accessible for people of all shapes and physical and mental abilities. Its location, right at a transit hub, is also a significant advantage.  

In the words of Joan Leon, “There’s no organization like it in the world.”