Ed Roberts (activist)
|Born||Edward Verne Roberts
January 23, 1939
|Died||March 14, 1995(aged 56)|
|Occupation||Disability rights activist|
Edward Verne Roberts (January 23, 1939 – March 14, 1995) was an American activist. He was the first student with severe disabilities to attend the University of California, Berkeley. He was a pioneering leader of the disability rights movement.
Roberts contracted polio at the age of fourteen in 1953, two years before the Salk vaccine put an end to the epidemics. He spent eighteen months in hospitals and returned home paralyzed from the neck down except for two fingers on one hand and several toes. He slept in an iron lung at night and often rested there during the day. When out of the lung he survived by "frog breathing," a technique for swallowing air using facial and neck muscles.
He attended school by telephone hook-up until his mother Zona insisted that he go to school once a week for a few hours. At school he faced his deep fear of being stared at and transformed his sense of personal identity. He gave up thinking of himself as a "helpless cripple," and decided to think of himself as a "star." He credited his mother with teaching him by example how to fight for what he needed.
Ed Roberts is often called the father of the disability rights movement. His career as an advocate began when a high school administrator threatened to deny his diploma because he had not completed driver's education and physical education. After attending the College of San Mateo he was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley. He had to fight for the support he needed from the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to attend college because his rehabilitation counselor thought he was too severely disabled to ever get a job. On learning that Roberts had a severe disability, one of the UC Berkeley deans famously commented, "We've tried cripples before and it didn't work." Other Berkeley administrators supported his admission, and expressed the opinion that the University should be doing more.
Roberts matriculated in 1962, two years before the Free Speech Movement transformed Berkeley into a hotbed of student protest. When his search for housing met resistance in part because of the 800 pound iron lung that he slept in at night, the director of the campus health service offered him a room in an empty wing of the Cowell Hospital. Roberts accepted on the condition that the area where he lived be treated as dormitory space, not a medical facility. His admission broke the ice for other students with severe disabilities who joined him over the next few years at what evolved into the Cowell Residence Program.
The group developed a sense of identity and elan, and began to formulate a political analysis of disability. They began calling themselves the "Rolling Quads" to the surprise of some non-disabled observers who had never before heard a positive expression of disability identity. In 1968 when two of the Rolling Quads were threatened with eviction from the Cowell Residence Program by a Rehabilitation Counselor, the Rolling Quads organized a successful 'revolt' that led to the counselor's transfer.
Their success on campus inspired the group to begin advocating for curb cuts, opening access to the wider community, and to create the Physically Disabled Student's Program (PDSP) - the first student led disability services program in the country. Ed Roberts flew 3000 miles from California to Washington DC with no respiratory support in order to attend a conference at the start-up of the federal TRIO program through which the PDSP later secured funding. The PDSP provided services including attendant referral and wheelchair repair to students at the University, but it was soon taking calls from people with disabilities with the same concerns who were not students.
He earned B.A. (1964) and M.A. (1966) degrees from UC Berkeley in Political Science. He became an official Ph.D. candidate (C.Phil.) in political science at Berkeley in 1969, but did not complete his Ph.D.
The need to serve the wider community led to the creation of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living (CIL), the first independent living service and advocacy program run by and for people with disabilities. Contrary to common belief, he was not the founder of the Berkeley CIL, nor the CIL's first executive director. He was teaching political science at an "alternative college," but returned to Berkeley to assume leadership of the fledgling organization. He guided the CIL's rapid growth during a decisive time for the emerging disability rights movement. The CIL provided a model for a new kind of community organization designed to address the needs and concerns of people with a wide range of disabilities.
In 1976, newly elected Governor Jerry Brown appointed Ed Roberts Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation - the same agency that had once labelled him too severely disabled to work. He served in that post until 1983. When California politics again shifted to the right, he returned again to Berkeley where he co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Judy Heumann and Joan Leon.
Roberts died on March 14, 1995, at the age of 56.
There are hundreds of centers for independent living around the world based on his original model. There is a National Council on Independent Living, a national advocacy organization established by all the centers. They hold an annual meeting every spring in Washington. At the one that was held after his passing, on May 15, 1995, Ed's empty wheelchair was towed by a volunteer as it symbolically led more than 500 advocates from around the country for the last time, on a memorial march from Upper Senate Park to a vigil in his honor in a Senate office building. Speakers at this vigil included Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Representative Steny Hoyer, Judith Heumann, and Paul Hearne. Ed's wheelchair was then donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
His papers are held at the Bancroft Library.
Awards and recognition
- 1984 MacArthur Fellows Program
- In 2010, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill by State Senator Loni Hancock (D-09) that declared January 23 of every year to be a day of special significance.
- In 2011 a multi-agency independent living center, known as the Ed Roberts Campus, had its grand opening.
- Inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2011.
- Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Random House, 1993. ISBN 978-0-8129-1964-6
- "Edward V. Roberts, 56, Champion of the Disabled", The New York Times, J. MICHAEL ELLIOTT, March 16, 1995
- @cal, great minds online | @Cal great minds online
- Finding Aid to the Edward V. Roberts Papers, The Bancroft Library
- Ed Roberts Campus
- 2011 California Hall of Fame Inductees Retrieved 12/11/2011
- Ed Roberts Campus
- World Institute on Disability Founders
- Ed Roberts tribute from the Center for Independent Living
-  "Ed Roberts Campus About Ed page"
- The story about Ed's wheelchair being donated to the Smithsonian
- Ed Roberts: The Godfather of Independent Living
- "Audio transcript: On Don Lorence and his power wheelchair", The Bancroft Library
- Oral History Interview with EDWARD V. ROBERTS