The Other Activists of the 60s
A New Collection of Original Papers and Histories Documents Disability
by Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 4, 1998
Few people know it, but while Mario Savio strode the steps of
Sproul Hall and made a name for Berkeley activism in the 60s,
across campus another young student quietly laid groundwork for
a different revolution: the disability rights movement.
Far from the cheering crowds on Sproul Plaza, Ed Roberts came
to Berkeley packing an iron lung and push wheelchair. A polio
survivor, he retained little use of his arms and legs, and when
he sought student housing he was told iron lungs dont fit in
The disability rights movement began the day Roberts arrived
on the Berkeley campus, said Joseph Shapiro, a writer for U.S.
News and World Report and author of No Pity: People with Disabilities
Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.
However, unlike Berkeleys famous Free Speech Movement, the work
of the small band Roberts inspired is little known and less documented,
though it revolutionized the lives of people with disabilities
and led to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act
So Berkeley is building a new collection of original documents
and histories funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the
National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
Already the archive contains several hundred cartons of records,
and 35 oral histories are planned.
The book has not been written on this history. But its particularly
good for people here at Berkeley to know about it, because this
is one of the most astounding things that has happened on this
campus, said Bonnie Hardwick, curator at the Bancroft Library
and head of the new project.
Oral histories are especially important because a lot of these
disabled people did not write much, maybe were not able to write,
so there is not a rich written record, said Ann Lage, principal
editor on the project for the Oral History Office. And, she added,
sometimes personal interviews reveal what the written record doesnt.
A slight young man, Ed Roberts contracted polio when he was 14.
The illness left him dependent on an iron lung for up to 18 hours
each day. During his years at Berkeley, he was sometimes carried
up stairways in his wheelchair to attend classes and was once
threatened with arrest by city police for not using proper bathroom
facilities in an era when toilets were not wheelchair-accessible.
But Roberts, who would go on to help found the Berkeley Center
for Independent Living and become the states first disabled director
of the Department of Rehabilitation, never had it easy. In his
senior year of high school, he was denied a diploma because he
was not able to pass two required courses: physical education
and drivers training.
I had gone from a bad student in grammar school, really not an
F student, but basically a C student, to in high school I
had become a straight A student, Roberts, who is now deceased,
said in an oral history he gave in 1994. I was learning how to
write papers and was doing all kinds of stuff. My mother was pretty
smart and helped me do a lot of stuff. Basically, I learned through
her tutelage, and other students, how to write and how to take
tests and all kinds of things. I was pretty proud.
I filed for graduation ... and what happened then was almost
immediately the school came back and said, You cannot graduate.
You dont have enough required credits. We said, What? Ive
fulfilled all my academic (requirements). Ive taken college prep
and done well. They said, But you have not had driver training
and P.E., and these are state requirements.
I said, I dont think Im going to need driver training. Later
we said, Well, Ive had physical therapy, and they said, No,
no, thats not good enough.
I remember my mother once, in a state of sarcasm, looking at
the principal and saying, Well, well put him in the (drivers)
seat, and I will get behind him and I will drive him.
Roberts received his diploma when the school board intervened
on his behalf. But this was only the first of many battles to
I learned a lot from that fight, said Roberts. You dont let
people walk all over you, you do something about it. You fight
for what you believe is right, and that taught me. I think that
was the model I followed ever since.
Roberts went on to fight for rehabilitation funds to attend college
and for entry to a school that would have him. And when at last
he headed for Berkeley, he was discouraged because iron lungs
didnt fit in dorm rooms.
I think we almost gave up because of that, said Roberts.
After a second rejection at International House they were too
freaked out to deal with me, said Roberts Cowell Hospital was
suggested. The director, Henry Bruyn, knew a lot about polio,
said Roberts. He looked at me and he thought to himself. He said
out loud, I remember it was one of the first things he said, there
must be a lot of people your age from those old polio epidemics
that are ready to go on now to college, and they dont have much
Bruyn offered Roberts a home at the hospital and Roberts accepted,
becoming the first severely disabled student to attend Berkeley.
Over the course of the next eight years, about a dozen students
joined him, said Susan OHara, former director of the campus
Disabled Students Program. From securing curb cuts on Telegraph
Avenue to building a fleet of motorized wheelchairs and figuring
out efficient ways to schedule personal attendants, the students
set about making the changes they needed.
In the summer of 71, OHara herself was coping with disabilities
from polio when she came to study at Berkeley and live at Cowell.
The disabled students program lent me a motorized chair, she
said. It revolutionized my life. There were no curb ramps in
the country except on Telegraph Avenue. You cant go anywhere
in a motorized wheelchair without curb ramps. But I could go from
Bancroft to Dwight.
It was thrilling. I cant tell you how thrilling it was, she
By the time OHara arrived, a few students had already ventured
out of Cowell to live on their own. Its hard to describe how
revolutionary this was because now its so normal. They rigged
up ways to open table-top ovens, if they didnt have finger dexterity;
they had special tables built. I sort of looked at what they were
doing and said, I can do that.
This was the beginning of the independent living movement in
Berkeley, she said. They did it for themselves and then other
OHara, who headed the Disabled Students Program on campus from
1988 to 1992, suggested building the new archive at the Bancroft
I knew we needed to talk to the people who had lived this history
.... The grassroots and the struggles and the wars were sort of
getting glossed over. The party line said Berkeley was the first,
the best, the leader and that it was all very smooth and everybody
involved was pretty perfect.
Not so, said OHara. In typical Berkeley fashion, there were
a lot of side issues, she laughed.
She said Roberts touched off a revolution in the disabled community
not only at Berkeley but across the country. How perfect that
in the same years Mario Savio exhorted the crowds to throw their
bodies upon the gears and wheels of the machine, Roberts and a
handful of others challenged the worlds view of disability, changing
Disability Rights Movement Timeline of Events
1953: 14-year-old Edward V. Roberts survives polio, is left paralyzed.
1962: Roberts becomes first severely disabled student to gain entry
1969: Roberts and others start Berkeleys first disabled students
group, The Rolling Quads.
1970: Berkeley disabled students win an appeal to the city of Berkeley
for curb cuts, making Berkeley one of the most disabled-accessible
1970: Disabled students help create Berkeleys first official Physically
Disabled Students Program.
1972: The Center for Independent Living is founded in Berkeley.
1973: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits federally funded institutions
from discriminating against the disabled.
1975: Roberts named director of Californias Department of Rehabilitation.
1975: Education of All Handicapped Children Act passes, first federal
guarantee that disabled children can go to school.
1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act, a far-reaching federal
statue, prohibits discrimination against millions of disabled
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