“We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” This was the response from the University of California at Berkeley to Ed Roberts when he applied for admission in 1962. This was not the first rejection that Ed received. In 1961, he was considered so severely disabled, that he was labeled “unemployable.” Roberts was significantly disabled, but he knew he could be an independent, contributing member of society. It was fitting that he fought for admission to UC Berkeley, since they were known as a home for radical politics and progressive social movements like the Yippies and Black Panthers. Ed was reluctantly granted admission to the University in 1962.
Ed’s disability stemmed from a contraction of polio as a teenager. This left him with very limited motion as well as the reliance on a respirator to breathe. His iron lung, which weighed around 800 pounds, could not be held in any of the on-campus housing so he was forced to live in Cowell Hall, the campus medical facility. His brother acted as his personal care attendant, often taking him to class in a manual wheelchair. Ed may have been the first student admitted with a significant disability, but he would not be the last.
The following year, another student with a significant disability, John Hessler, was admitted to the University. As the number of students with disabilities grew, late night meetings and talks developed into strategies for how they could best advocate for themselves in living independently both on campus and in the surrounding community.
These “talks” with his fellow students would be the beginnings of the Independent Living and Disability Rights movements. There was a realization that materialized; the struggle for independence was not a medical issue, it was a civil rights issue. The radical idea that a person with a disability could manage their life emerged from Ed’s involvement with Gini Laurie in a publication that would eventually be named, The “Rehabilitation Gazette.” It was here, that the idea of relying on support from peers instead of professionals emerged.
The group, “The Rolling Quads,” was formed with its primary goal of ‘accessibility.’ The group advocated for the removal of barriers as well as the integration of support services for students who were labeled, “severely disabled.” In addition, “The Rolling Quads” also advocated for personal attendant services for students with severe disabilities attending school. Ed’s activism helped form a new movement that radically changed how people with disabilities viewed themselves. In a communication with Gini Laurie in 1970, he stated,
“I’m tired of well meaning non-cripples with their stereotypes of what I can and cannot do. Directing my life and my future. I want cripples to direct their own programs and to be able to train other cripples to direct new programs. This is the star to something big — cripple power.” -Ed Roberts
This new concept of people with disabilities using self-determination and independence help fight the notion that people with disabilities are passive recipients of charity and are unable to manage their lives. In 1972, with very little funding, Ed opened the first Center for Independent Living (CIL). These centers embrace peer support, consumer control, civil rights, integration, equal access, advocacy, and dignity, which are core philosophies of the Independent Living and Disability Rights movements.
Aside from founding the first CIL and supporting numerous others, Ed worked as the director of the California Rehabilitation Agency for eight years and went on to found, with the support of others, the World Institute on Disability. Sadly, we lost Ed Roberts in March of 1995 at the age of 55. Being The Father of Independent Living, his legacy lives on in the forms of CILs across the world as well as in the opening of the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, CA, a first of its kind, offering support and resources to people with disabilities and the organizations that support them.