Most of us did not observe “Ed Roberts Day” on January 23rd, but we should have. Roberts, one of the founders of the independent living movement, lived a bold life “out-loud,”as one of a cadre of activists who catalyzed the movement for disability rights. That movement empowered people with disabilities to take control of their own lives and demand a world free of barriers to access and opportunity. In public spaces and workplaces, all of us have benefitted from the philosophy and practice of universal access and inclusion advanced by Roberts and the disability rights movement.
The short film “Free Wheeling” tells the story of Ed Roberts’ evolution as a trailblazing disability rights activist. After contracting polio when he was fourteen, he became paralyzed and lived from then on with technical assistance from an iron lung and, eventually, a power wheelchair. When, after graduating from UC Berkeley in the 1960’s, Roberts sought help finding employment from the California Department of Rehabilitation, the counselor told him that he was “too disabled to work.”
Thirteen years later, Governor Brown (then in his first term) appointed Roberts to head the very agency that had sent him packing. Governor Brown’s appointment of a person with severe disabilities to head the Rehab Department was considered by many a radical act.
In fact, Roberts was an avowed and proud radical. He was on a mission to force a paradigm change in both how people with disabilities viewed themselves and how we as a society view people with disabilities.
Most people never thought of independence as a possibility when they thought of us. But we knew what we wanted, and we set up CIL to provide the vision and resources to get people out into the community. The Berkeley CIL was also revolutionary as a model for advocacy based organizations: no longer would we tolerate being spoken for.
The Berkeley Center for Independent Living, founded by Roberts and other activists in the 1960’s, is now housed within the ultra-accessible, and aptly named, Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. This magnificent building is the epicenter of disability activism, housing, under one roof, many of the most important disability rights organizations in the country, if not the world, including the World Institute on Disability (co-founded by Roberts) and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
Last week I served as a volunteer attorney at the Ed Roberts Campus, staffing the workers’ rights disability law clinic offered by the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco-Employment Law Center. People with disabilities often seek help from the legal clinic because, like Ed Roberts, someone in power thinks that they are too disabled to work. And when they walk or wheel through front doors, they enter a place that embodies the vision of the independent living and disability rights movements of which Roberts was so much a part.
The Ed Roberts Campus exemplifies the concept of “universal design,” the idea that what designers refer to as the “built environment” should be “more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost.” Barriers have fallen away as curving ramps offering smooth travel from the first to the second floor and elevators can be called with the press of a wheelchair footrest. The Ed Roberts Campus is a beautiful symbol of how far we have come in the struggle for a barrier-free world. The work that happens in that beautiful space is a reminder of how far we have yet to go to achieve Robert’s goal of a barrier-free world.
The Ed Roberts campus is a place where people with and without disabilities are inspired to action. It is a fitting tribute to the man who inspired a movement to get us there. And really there’s no reason to wait until Governor Brown issues next year’s “Ed Roberts Day” proclamation to move from inspiration to action.