Serving People with Disabilities in Northern California
Ed Roberts is often called the father of the disability rights movement. He may certainly be called the activist father. His career as an advocate began when a high school administrator threatened to deny his diploma because he had not completed driver’s education and physical education. After attending the College of San Mateo, he was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. He had to fight for the support he needed from the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to attend college because his rehabilitation counselor thought he was too severely disabled to ever get a job. On learning that Roberts had a severe disability, one of the UC Berkeley deans famously commented, “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work;” but other Berkeley administrators supported his admission and expressed the opinion that, “the University should be doing more.”
Roberts matriculated in 1962, two years before the Free Speech Movement transformed Berkeley into a hotbed of student protest. When his search for housing met resistance in part because of the 800 pound iron lung that he slept in at night, the director of the campus health service offered him a room in an empty wing of the Cowell Hospital. Roberts accepted on the condition that the area where he lived be treated as dormitory space, not a medical facility. His admission “broke the ice” for other students with severe disabilities who joined him over the next few years at what evolved into the Cowell Residence Program.
The group developed a sense of identity and elan and began to formulate a political analysis of disability, they began calling themselves the “Rolling Quads” to the surprise of some non-disabled observers who had never before heard a positive sense of disability identity expressed before. In 1968 when two of the Rolling Quads were threatened with eviction from the Cowell Residence Program by an authoritarian Rehabilitation Counselor, the Rolling Quads organized a successful ‘revolt’ that led to the counselor’s transfer.
Their success on campus inspired the group to begin advocating for curb cuts, opening access to the wider community; and to create the Physically Disabled Student’s Program (PDSP) – the first student led disability services program in the country. Ed Roberts flew 3000 miles from California to Washington DC with no respiratory support in order to attend a conference at the start-up of the federal TRIO program through which the PDSP later secured funding. The PDSP provided services including attendant referral and wheelchair repair to students at the University, but it was soon taking calls from people with disabilities with the same concerns who were not students.
He earned B.A. (1964) and M.A. (1966) degrees from UC Berkeley in Political Science. He became an official Ph.D. Candidate (C.Phil.) in political science at Berkeley in 1969, but did not complete his Ph.D.
The need to serve the wider community led to the creation of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living (CIL), the first independent living service and advocacy program run by and for people with disabilities. Contrary to common belief, he was not the founder of the Berkeley CIL, nor the CIL’s first executive director. He was teaching political science at an “alternative college,” but returned to Berkeley to assume leadership of the fledgling organization. He guided the CIL’s rapid growth during a decisive time for the emerging disability rights movement. The CIL provided a model for a new kind of community organization designed to address the needs and concerns of people with a wide range of disabilities.