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Edward Roberts - The Father of the Independent Living Movement

accessibility pioneers

Edward Verne Roberts, also known as Ed Roberts, is the father of the Independent Living Movement. Therefore, no list of pioneers of accessibility can be complete without mentioning him. Growing out of the disability rights movement of the 1960’s, the Independent Living Movement worked to replace the special education and rehabilitation experts' concepts of integration, normalization, and rehabilitation with a new paradigm developed by people with disabilities themselves.

Robert was born in 1939 in San Mateo, CA and died in Berkley, CA on March 14, 1995. At 14, he contracted polio, which paralyzed him from the neck down. As a result, he had to pause his high school studies. But after surviving polio, most of his lower body was left paralyzed. For that reason, Roberts needed a respirator or iron lung. 

And because of his medical equipment, he couldn't attend his classes physically. He would listen to them on the telephone. For the next eighteen months, he received treatment until he was physically able to return to school. But after returning to school, Roberts noticed that many other students with disabilities like him faced discrimination. For instance, Roberts's school had denied him the chance to graduate because he couldn't pass driver's and physical education credits. Robert was, however, bold enough to stand up for himself and petitioned the school to grant him the diploma. But that was only the beginning of many other challenges he would face in his education journey. Soon after graduating high school, Roberts got an admission letter to the University of California, Berkeley. 

Unfortunately, as soon as the University learned that he had quadriplegia, the admission office tried to revert his admission letter. The administrators were quick to point out that the University's dorms didn't have the space or appropriate equipment to accommodate Robert's 800-pound Iron Lung and wheelchair. But Roberts was not one to be turned away quickly. He insisted on taking the classes and became the first student at the University to use a wheelchair and the first student with a severe disability to attend the University of California.

During his undergraduate studies, Roberts created the Rolling Quads group. Essentially, it was a group of students who had disabilities like him, and they moved into the dorms together. They created a club and focused on building more pressure on UC Berkeley to make the dorms and classrooms more accessible for students with disabilities. The club grew into the Physically Disabled Students Program. It quickly became the first college organization in the country to support the needs of students with disabilities. 

Upon seeing the success of the program, it inspired Roberts to create a community program in Berkeley that helped people with disabilities live as independently as possible. This advocacy group was founded in 1972 and became the first Center for Independent Living. It encouraged people with disabilities to live independently and fought for changes that would make it easy for people with disabilities to access community life. 

The advocacy group's first success was persuading the city of Berkeley to install curb cuts that also accommodated wheelchair access. Later in 1975, Roberts was appointed as the head of California's State Department of Rehabilitation, where he served as the director until 1983. During his tenure, Edward joined forces with other activists, including the infamous Judith Hueumann as well as Joan Leon.

Together, they founded the World Institute on Disability. It soon became an internationally known non-profit organization that worked thoroughly to integrate people living with disabilities into their immediate communities through policies, research, and consulting efforts. On top of that, Roberts traveled the world and raised awareness of the Independent Living Philosophy. Ed Roberts was a force and fought a good fight for the disability community, which taught other disability activists that they could shape federal rulings in their favor. This would later pave the way for the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. 

Roberts passed on at 56 from cardiac arrest on March 14, 1995. Later, hundreds of centers worldwide were based on his original model. Also, the Centers for Independent Living established a National Council of Independent Living, which holds meetings every summer in Washington, DC. Since his passing, the state of California memorializes Ed Roberts with a holiday in his honor. Ed Roberts Day is on the 23rd of every January. 

Interview: Disability Activist Ed Roberts on "60 Minutes" with Harry Reasoner

Find Your Local Center for Independent Living: Here

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