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BART Honors Berkeley Accessibilty Advocate Hale Zukas

By Lydia Gans
Friday April 20, 2012 - 04:12:00 PM

More than 100 people gathered at the Ed Roberts Center on Wednesday to honor disabled activist Hale Zukas for forty years of work and advocacy for accessible public transportation. Many of the people there were old folks - many in wheelchairs or having other disabilities. These people remember when their lives were severely limited , when wheelchairs were not accommodated on BART or buses, when people who were visually or hearing impaired there had no way to get directions, before curb cuts or station elevators and a host of other things we now take for granted were available. 

The event was organized by BART which has been instrumental in developing the Ed Roberts Campus at the Ashby station. The passageway between BART and the Ed Roberts Campus has been named after Hale and a plaque placed there in his honor. Ken Stein of the San Francisco mayor's office on Disability has worked with Hale for many years. In a letter to the BART board in support of the plaque he suggests it is more than symbolic. “In a very real sense, over the decades, Hale has created a passageway between BART itself and the disability Rights/Independent Living Movement ...” 

Hale is a familiar figure, riding his wheelchair, usually at high speed, around town. Cerebral palsy doesn't slow him down. He has a pointer attached to his headband which he uses to point to words and letters on his lapboard. His speech is very difficult to understand but he has numerous friends and attendants who interpret for him. His output is amazing. People who know him describe him as brilliant, particularly in mathematics – and they all say he can be very funny. He has produced numerous research studies on subjects relevant to accessibility of transportation and architectural barriers. He currently serves on the BART Access Advisory Committee. He has also served in a multitude of capacities over the years as a consultant to BART, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, the Federal Highway Administration and a great many other state and Federal agencies including being a member of the Federal Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. 

Lynette Sweet, BART Board member representing Bart District 7 which includes the Ashby station, chaired the event. Following the usual protocol for these events, several people involved in transportation as well as representatives of Barbara Lee, State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, and State Senator Loni Hancock, spoke briefly and presented certificates of appreciation. 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates appeared in person and spoke of his many years of association with Hale and the disability movement. He recalled that back in 1972 Hale and others came to him with the idea of starting a center for independent living in Berkeley. “This was a radical idea. Run by disabled people, people on the board were disabled, people they were serving were disabled and they wanted to to change the world, they wanted to open up housing, offices, transportation available to them , work opportunities available to them they wanted to be in the mainstream. .. they had to change the transportation system in the country. (This was ) in the seventies. The bus system – they weren't about to change, BART said there are too many problems. And people said no. There had to be lawsuits, there had to be pressure there had to be activism there had to be 504 and a whole outrageous acts to hammer away and get what they needed.” (504, the Rehabilitation Ace passed in 1973, prohibited discrimination in federal programs and services and all other programs and services receiving federal funds.) 

In talking with some of the people gathered to pay tribute to Hale it was clear that the current level of accessibility was not easy to achieve. Randall Glock, current chair of the BART Accessibility Task Force, recalled how 27 years ago he was denied access to BART because he was in a wheelchair. It needed a lawsuit to force AC Transit to buy accessible buses. And it was hard for the transit company. A person from the agency explained that being the first to have them they had no model to help guide them in learning how to drive and maintain those buses. It was also clear that it took considerable convincing that devices like kneeling buses and curb cuts and elevators makes transit more accessible for all folks – mothers, shoppers, visually impaired, and others. And it was Hale who did, and continues to do a lot of the convincing. Joan Leon, co-chair of the Ed Roberts Campus steering committee said it simply. “Hale was in their face constantly. They didn't want to make changes but he wouldn't go away. And now they're proud of it.”