Today marks the birthday of Ed Roberts, born on January 23, 1939 in San Mateo, California. Ed was one of the first American disability rights activists and is considered the founder of the independent-living movement.
Roberts contracted polio at age 14 and was paralyzed from the neck down. Requiring an iron lung or a respirator to breathe, he attended high school in California by telephone before attending in person in his senior year. Early on, Roberts encountered obstacles as a result of his disability. Because he had not completed physical education and driver education courses, his high school refused to let him graduate, but the decision was reversed after his mother petitioned the school board for his diploma. In 1962, after two years of attending a local college, he was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, but the university, which had been unaware of his disability when he applied, refused to admit him on the grounds that his iron lung would not fit in a dormitory room. Roberts challenged the administration and ultimately was admitted.
While at Berkeley, he worked with the university to develop the Physically Disabled Students Program, a program run by and for disabled students to provide wheelchair repair, attendant referral, peer counseling, and other services that would enable them to live in the community. Roberts earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1964 and a master’s degree in political science two years later.
In 1972 Roberts and other members of the Physically Disabled Students Program came together in Berkeley to found the Center for Independent Living, an advocacy group that fought for changes that would give people with disabilities access to community life. The group’s first success was its campaign to persuade the city of Berkeley to install curb cuts, permitting wheelchair access.
In 1976 Roberts was appointed director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, an agency that in 1962 had deemed Roberts too disabled to hold a job. As director, he facilitated the establishment of independent living centers throughout the state. He also traveled to lobby for disability rights in the United States and around the world. After his death, a center for people with disabilities was created in Berkeley and named for him.