On January 23rd, we celebrate Ed Roberts Day to honor the man often called the father of the Independent Living movement. Ed Roberts was a charismatic leader who championed people with disabilities rights.
“The disability community as a whole takes this day to remember a man who was a catalyst for disability rights, access, and equality. Because of the work he did, inclusion is prioritized, access is a requirement, and people with disabilities are developing stronger and louder voices every day. “ – Access Living
About Ed Roberts:
Ed Roberts was a pioneer in disability rights. He was the first student with significant disabilities to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Political Science. He was a founder of the University’s Physically Disabled Students Program, which became the model for the first Center for Independent Living and over 400 other independent living centers across the country. As the first California State Director of Rehabilitation with a disability; Ed Roberts personified the Independent Living Movement.
At the age of 14, Ed Roberts contracted Polio, along with his parents and siblings. Ed was left with significant respiratory, muscle, and limb weakness and atrophy. As a result, he slept in an iron lung (a breathing machine used prior to the development of our modern ventilators) and developed breathing techniques in order to function independently of his iron lung during the day.
Ed sued the State of California to gain admission to UC Berkeley and successfully convinced the university to go on to accept more students with disabilities and become one of the most physically accessible campuses in the United States. Ed would be the first student with a severe disability to attend the campus, and upon his arrival found the University totally unprepared to accommodate him. Ed boarded in the campus hospital to house the massive weight of his iron lung.
Unsatisfied with his access to post-secondary education, Ed learned of a Federal funding opportunity for college campuses and led an effort to gain funding for a physically disabled student program at Cal. This program helped disabled students live independently in dorms or the community and was the model for forming the first Center for Independent Living (TheCIL in Berkeley, CA) in 1972.
More students with disabilities started to arrive on the UC Berkley campus, and Ed assembled the first disability-led student organization in the United States. The organization, The Rolling-Quads, provided disability services including transportation, wheelchair repair, attendant referral, peer counseling, and advocacy for services that would enable them to live in the community and gain greater access to their campus.
Ed became Executive Director of the first Center for Independent Living, TheCIL, in 1974. In 1976 he was appointed the State Director of Vocational Rehabilitation by California Governor Jerry Brown. As Director of an agency that in 1962 had deemed him too disabled to hold a job, Robers established independent living centers throughout the state. He traveled to lobby for disability rights in the United States and internationally. Ed Roberts was an influential and revered advocate for people with disabilities. He was heavily involved in the Disability Rights 504 sit-ins in 1977 which was the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building in United States history. In 1983, received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, which he used to help establish the World Institute on Disability.
In his work and life, Ed firmly believed in empowering others to be advocates and activists. In this spirit, Centers for Independent Living nationwide celebrate his legacy and his memory on January 23.