Disability rights movement leader Susan O’Hara dies at 80, leaves ‘lasting legacy’

Susan O’Hara, a leader in the disability rights movement, died earlier this month in her Berkeley home at the age of 80.

O’Hara grew up in La Grange, Illinois with her four siblings before moving to Berkeley in 1971 at the encouragement of her sister, Liz O’Hara. Susan O’Hara taught at a high school when she first arrived in Berkeley but soon transitioned to the UC Berkeley campus, first taking classes herself and then beginning her work with disabled students, according to Liz O’Hara.  

“I had applied for grad school in Berkeley and I saw how many supports there were for people with disabilities and it seemed like a really great opportunity for Susan,” Liz O’Hara said. “She decided this was where she needed to be for the rest of her life.”

At a young age, Susan O’Hara contracted polio and used a wheelchair. Liz O’Hara said that her sister Susan applied personal experiences to her work in the disabled student community on campus, where she focused on helping students transition from home to campus living.

Susan O’Hara also worked with parents to educate them on the importance of independent living for students with disabilities, according to Liz O’Hara.

“For many years, she helped a lot of us living at home move into independent-living spaces,” said Judith Smith, founder of AXIS Dance Company and longtime friend of Susan O’Hara. “She was really a powerhouse.”

Susan O’Hara became the coordinator of the campus residence program for disabled students in 1975. Disabled students lived in a campus hospital before Susan O’Hara’s appointment, but she led an effort to move those students to the Unit 2 residence halls, according to Liz O’Hara. Susan O’Hara then helped students get set up in their dormitories with supports.

In 1988, Susan O’Hara was appointed director of the campus Disabled Students’ Program. After she retired in 1992, Susan O’Hara helped establish a collection of oral histories of people involved in the disability rights and independent living movement. She worked to grow and maintain this archived history of disabled resources housed in the Bancroft Library, according to Ann Lage, a former research interviewer with the Bancroft Library.

“Although we have lost Susan, we have tangible evidence of her lasting legacy in these histories,” Lage said.

Susan O’Hara was also involved in the Campus Committee for the Removal of Architectural Barriers, through which she met and worked with Raymond Lifchez, a campus architecture professor emeritus. Lifchez said his architectural focus was centered on accessibility and independent living, adding that “Susan’s work supported my work.”

Because of her expertise in helping students with disabilities in higher education, Susan O’Hara was often consulted by American and international institutions to assist in the development and evolution of disability programs, according to Liz O’Hara.

“I think she’s most remembered very fondly by people for her personal qualities — her sense of humor, lively intelligence, warmth and generosity,” Liz O’Hara said. “She was a very kind and loving big sister.”

Contact Amanda Bradford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @amandabrad_uc.