Disability activists honor life, legacy of Ed Roberts

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Judith Heumann, a founder of the Center for Independent Living, presented the Ed Roberts Award, which honors the disability activist Roberts, to former mayor Tom Bates and former California senator Loni Hancock on Monday for their contributions to the independent living movement.

Roberts, who had post-polio quadriplegia, decided to attend UC Berkeley in 1962 despite the fact that the campus had no accommodations for people with severe disabilities. His advocacy opened the school to more students with disabilities and created the Physically Disabled Students Program and then the Center for Independent Living, or CIL.

“For many of us who live with disabilities, he is an example of the fortitude it takes to be who you want to be, and he has built a legacy of advocacy, persistence, humor and really breaking barriers,” said Teresa Favuzzi, the executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, or CFILC.

On Monday, Roberts’ birthday, Google featured a Doodle honoring his life at the request of the CFILC program, Youth Organizing! Disabled & Proud. Many disability-related Listservs had been buzzing about the Doodle, according to Georgina Kleege, a member of the Disability Studies Cluster at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Roberts directed the state’s rehabilitation agency and was the co-founder and president of the World Institute on Disability.

After Roberts’ death in 1995, disability community leaders decided to commemorate his life’s work through supporting the independent living movement organizations that he helped create. With the city of Berkeley, they established the Ed Roberts Campus, dedicated to fostering collaboration and improving services and opportunities for people with disabilities.

“Ed was someone who brought people together to work, as he would say, ‘for our preferred future,’ ” said Dmitri Belser, president of the board of the Ed Roberts Campus.

The campus did not host a specific event Monday to honor Roberts’ birthday because the center by the Ashby BART Station in South Berkeley honors him every day.

Marsha Saxton, a lecturer in disability studies and a member of the Disability Studies Cluster, said in an email that Ed Roberts’ mother, Zona Roberts, is a disability activist as well and modeled advocacy for her son.

Kleege said there are reasons to be concerned for disability rights on campus. She is part of a group of faculty with disabilities and said that with no central office for services, it can be difficult to get legally mandated accommodations. She added that the Donald Trump administration, opposed to big government, could challenge the scope of agencies that relate to disability rights and services.

“It’s an empty gesture to just celebrate him … and not ask what needs to be done now,” Kleege said.

Aleah Jennings-Newhouse covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ajn_dc.

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