Ed Roberts (activist)

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Ed Roberts
Edward Verne Roberts

(1939-01-23)January 23, 1939
United States
DiedMarch 14, 1995(1995-03-14) (aged 56)
United States
OccupationDisability rights activist
SpouseCatherine Dugan (1976–1982)

Edward Verne Roberts (January 23, 1939 – March 14, 1995) was an American activist. He was the first wheelchair user to attend the University of California, Berkeley.[1] He was a pioneering leader of the disability rights movement.[2][3]


Early life[edit]

Roberts contracted polio at the age of fourteen in 1953, two years before the Salk vaccine ended the epidemic.[1] 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 forcing air into the lungs using facial and neck muscles.

He attended school by telephone communication until his mother, Zona, insisted that he attend 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 Independent Living movement.[4] His career as an advocate began when a high school administrator threatened to deny him 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 to attend college from the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, because his rehabilitation counselor thought he was too severely disabled to ever get a job. Upon 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 admitting Roberts, and expressed the opinion that the university should do more.

Roberts was admitted 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 élan, 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 a rehabilitation counselor threatened two of the Rolling Quads with eviction from the Cowell Residence, 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. Roberts flew 3,000 miles, from California to Washington, D.C., with no respiratory support, 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.[1] He became an official Ph.D. candidate (C.Phil.) in political science at Berkeley in 1969, but never completed his doctoral dissertation.[5][6]

The need to serve the wider community led activists to create 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, Roberts did not found the Berkeley CIL, nor was he the CIL's first executive director. At the time, he taught political science at Nairobi College,[5] 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. A major project in Berkeley, California led by Roberts and others at the CIL led to curb cuts up and down Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues creating an extensive path of travel.[7] Following this, the value of curb cuts was promoted more strongly and their installment was often made on a voluntary basis by municipal authorities and developers.

In 1976, newly elected Governor Jerry Brown appointed 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 Judith E. Heumann and Joan Leon. The World Institute on Disability is internationally known, and considered a hotbed of disability politics activism.

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was passed, Roberts realized that many of the buildings at UC Berkeley were not accessible to him or other wheelchair users.[8] Disability rights activists wanted to end discrimination and have rights for people with disabilities that were mandated and protected by the law. In what came to be called the 504 Sit-in, Roberts and his peers demonstrated to enforce section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which stated that people with disabilities should not be excluded from activities, denied the right to receive benefits, or be discriminated against, from any program that uses federal financial assistance, solely because of their disability.[9] For 28 days, activists occupied the offices of the Carter Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare building located in San Francisco.[10] The government staff refused to assist the protesters in any way. Other minority groups such as Black Panthers, the Butterfly Brigade, and even an anti gay violence group supported the disability rights movement and brought in food along with other materials to assist the protesters. While the protesters gathered, Roberts spoke to motivate the crowds of people. Eventually, government officials agreed to a congressional hearing which was held in the building. The testimonies of Ed Roberts along with other activists were so compelling that the representative from the Department of Health Education Welfare joined the sit-in. After relentlessly fighting for their rights, section 504 was signed into law and became fully implemented under President Nixon. This taught disability activists that they could shape the federal rulings in their favor.[11] These acts of resistance was a contributing factor which paved the way for the necessary creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Roberts died on March 14, 1995, at the age of 56 from cardiac arrest.[2]

Hundreds of Centers for Independent Living around the world are based on his original model. These Centers for Independent Living established the National Council on Independent Living, which holds a meeting every summer in Washington, D.C. At the one held after his passing, on May 15, 1995, Roberts' 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 of Maryland, Judith Heumann, and Paul Hearne.

His papers are held at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.[12] Roberts has been termed the father of the independent living movement in the U.S., though Lex Frieden of Texas was more well known in Washington politics. Roberts is highlighted in Joseph Shapiro's 1993 book, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.

Marriage and children[edit]

Ed Roberts married Catherine Dugan in 1976, but the couple divorced in 1982. They shared custody of their son Lee together.[13][14]

Awards and recognition[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Ed Roberts, disability-rights leader and Cal alum, gets his own state day". Berkeley News. July 27, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Elliott, J. Michael (March 16, 1995). "Edward V. Roberts, 56, Champion of the Disabled". The New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
  3. ^ John, Tara (January 24, 2017). "Ed Roberts: Google Doodle Honors Disability Activist". Time. Retrieved January 24, 2017.
  4. ^ "Ed Roberts' Wheelchair Records a Story of Obstacles Overcome". The Smithsonian Magazine. March 13, 2015. Retrieved January 24, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Kent & Quinlan 1996, p. 130.
  6. ^ Brown 2000.
  7. ^ Williamson, Bess (June 26, 2012). "The People's Sidewalks". Boom: A Journal of California. Retrieved September 22, 2014.
  8. ^ "Ed Roberts: The Father of Independent Living - FoundSF". www.foundsf.org. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  9. ^ "Short History of the 504 Sit in". Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  10. ^ Disabilities, The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental. "Jeff Moyer Remembers Ed Roberts and the 504 Demonstration". mn.gov. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  11. ^ "Ed Roberts, the Disability Rights Movement and the ADA - Google Arts & Culture". Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  12. ^ "Guide to the Edward V. Roberts Papers, 1975-1998". Online Archive of California.
  13. ^ "Edward Verne Roberts | Post Polio: Polio Place". www.polioplace.org. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  14. ^ Elliott, J. Michael (March 16, 1995). "Edward V. Roberts, 56, Champion of the Disabled". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  15. ^ "Ed Robert's Wheelchair". Smithsonian Institution.
  16. ^ "Home". Ed Roberts Campus. Retrieved March 25, 2016.
  17. ^ "Ed Roberts Campus". The Center for Accessible Technology. Archived from the original on April 6, 2016.
  18. ^ "Long-awaited Ed Roberts Campus opens in Berkeley". San Jose Mercury News. April 10, 2011. Archived from the original on April 11, 2016.
  19. ^ "Ed Roberts". California Museum. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
  20. ^ "Berkeley disability activists receive peace award in emotional ceremony". Contra Costa Times. Retrieved March 25, 2016.
  21. ^ "Ed Roberts activist". YouTube. Retrieved January 23, 2017.[dead YouTube link]
  22. ^ "Ed Roberts' 78th Birthday". Google Doodles Archive. January 23, 2017. Retrieved January 23, 2017. Today's Doodle pays tribute to an early leader of the disability rights movement, Ed Roberts.


External links[edit]