LivAbility Magazine
Text: Ed Roberts: the Father of Independent living. Background is dark blue with American flag. To the right is a black-and-white photo of Ed Roberts. He is in a large-backed wheelchair strapped in at the chest. He has a beard and longish hair. His arms are padded on his armrests. A woman in the foreground sits on the ground, her head reflected at his chest level with her head in her hand. Behind him stands a man carrying a sign reading "civil rights for all." Photo appears circa 1970s.

By Gary Karp
Photo courtesy of Tom Olin

Ability360. Curb cuts. Accessible restrooms, transportation, education, civil rights and all the rest.

We owe all of this to one man.

One guy. Ed Roberts.

If you have a disability or anything to do with disability, he is the direct source of why your life is the way it is. You should know his name, and his story.

Roberts contracted polio at fourteen years old in 1954. He remained significantly quadriplegic, spending much of his time in an iron lung until portable ventilation matured.

He was almost denied his high school diploma for not taking drivers’ ed and phys ed, then he fought his way into UC Berkeley in 1962 to study political science. The college president famously said,

“We tried cripples once, and it didn’t work.”

The California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation threw up a roadblock of their own. “You’ll never work, so why would we pay for your education?”

By 1976, Roberts was the director of California Voc Rehab.

All he had to do was sue the State of California to get into college. Obviously he won.

But where would he live? They had to bring in a crane to lift his iron lung through a window into an empty wing of the nearby Cowell Hospital. A modest beginning, but Ed’s success opened the way for more students with significant disabilities, and soon they had organized as “The Rolling Quads.”

Everyone I’ve met who was around at the time talks about how charismatic Ed was, what a smart and natural leader he was. That’s
a pretty great combination with his willingness to fight the good fight. Raised in a family of labor activists, he was the perfect guy to change the world.

So the Rolling Quads started providing services. Got classrooms changed if they needed to be accessible. Arranged personal attendants. Provided accessible transportation. Found housing.

Do you know where the first curb cut in the United States appeared? Yep. Berkeley, CA, thanks to Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads.

People started noticing. Disabled student services began appearing at other universities, but people with disabilities in the surrounding community wanted to get out there too. Independence and accessibility mattered beyond the ivied walls. So Ed and Judy Heumann (also a post-polio fighter who was told she couldn’t get a teaching certificate because of her wheelchair — she also served as the first-ever State Department Special Advisor for International Disability Rights) established the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the first of what are now hundreds of CILs in the U.S. Our own Ability360 is among the most substantial.

Ed and Judy and their growing cohort of advocates did something very cool. They went to the U.S. Congress and got the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed. CILs get federal money, and they have to be staffed by at least 51% people with disabilities.

Ed was even on hand negotiating with political leaders when a group of people with disabilities occupied a federal building in San Francisco (still the longest occupation on record) to force the signing of regulations for Section 504 of the rehab act, requiring the government and its contractors to provide access.

One guy. A movement that formed around him. History made that has affected every single one of us in the U.S., and to a substantial degree, the world. He changed your life. And he’s a model for the fact that one person can be the catalyst for accomplishing what seems impossible. Don’t forget him.

Gary Karp

Gary Karp

Gary Karp, a wheelchair user since his SCI in 1973, became a speaker for disability after releasing his first book “Life On Wheels: For the Active Wheelchair User” in 1999.