‘We’re a fixture’: Looking into Berkeley’s disability resources

Photo of the Ed Roberts Campus
Momoka Sasaki/Staff
The Ed Roberts Campus, named after disability activist and leader in the independent living movement Ed Roberts, is composed of various organizations offering more than 100 different disability-focused services, including technological, medical, counseling and legal support. Although the campus is currently closed in light of the pandemic, the organizations are continuing to provide remote services.

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Sitting on the edge of South Berkeley and formed by various disability organizations, the Ed Roberts Campus, or ERC, provides resources and services at a universally accessible transit hub.

Considered a global model of universal access and disability rights, the ERC celebrates Ed Roberts, a leader in the independent living movement of persons with disabilities, according to the ERC website. The ERC consists of seven partner organizations, two state agencies and six nonprofit organizations that offer more than 100 different services with a disability focus, according to Eric Smith, ERC executive director.

“It was designed to be a one-stop shop for disability,” Smith said. “It’s the culmination of the independent living movement, where we’ve got this beautiful building. It’s very visible, very open to the public, and it’s completely designed by people with disabilities for people with disabilities.”

Services provided through the ERC include technology and medical services, counseling, legal support and adaptive sports.

The Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, or BORP, is one of the seven ERC partners and focuses on improving the physical quality of life for people with disabilities.

BORP’s history began in 1976 after UC Berkeley alumna Susan Sygall was denied access to a swimming class due to her being in a wheelchair. Sygall then worked to raise awareness around the need for adaptive sports and a recreation program for people with physical disabilities.

Since then, BORP has developed into a million-dollar nonprofit organization dedicated to adaptive sports and recreation, according to Rick Smith, BORP executive director. The organization offers various adaptive sports, fitness and recreation programs, including an adaptive fitness center, adaptive cycling and a youth sports program.

“We’re a fixture,” Rick Smith said. “We were part of the whole disability rights movement in the sense that it really is a right, an individual right, to be able to play and recreate and compete, just like people that are able-bodied.”

Another ERC partner is the Center for Accessible Technology, or CforAT. It focuses on the accessibility of computers and technology for people with disabilities, according to CforAt’s website.

CforAT started in 1983 when a parent of a child with disabilities noticed the introduction of personal computers and saw this as an opportunity for her child “to get access to the world,” according to Dmitri Belser, CforAT executive director. Belser noted that this started the field of adaptive technology for people with disabilities.

“Technology is really one of the key components for people with disabilities,” Belser said. “Their disability isn’t the fact that they have a disability that prevents them from being able to do the things they want to do. What prevents them is that they don’t have the right tools to be able to do it.”

CforAT fixes these technical problems and works with all age groups of individuals with disabilities, including those who are low-income, according to Belser. The organization also engages in public policy work, provides business consulting services, helps create accessible websites and offers other services related to expanding access to technology.

While the ERC is closed and some of its organizations are limiting services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all organizations continue to provide essential and remote services. They have adapted their services by offering socially distant activities and transitioning to virtual services, such as working with individuals through Zoom and phone calls.

CforAT, for example, is helping schools adapt technology for children with disabilities as schools transition to remote learning. BORP has also transitioned to online fitness classes that are accessible through a Zoom link.

Other than the ERC and its organizations, there are several organizations and programs that assist individuals with disabilities in the city of Berkeley. These organizations also collaborate with the city, the local school district and UC Berkeley.

Nonprofit organization Easy Does It Emergency Services works in collaboration with the city and UC Berkeley to provide four core services. These services include backup caregiving, transportation services, mobility device repair and loaner program and case management, according to Michele Blackwell, Easy Does It Emergency Services executive director.

Blackwell noted, however, that the personal care services and transportation services have been limited to follow COVID-19 guidelines.

The organization also works with Alameda County as a whole through its Fast Accessible Safe Transportation and Emergency Repair service, helping repair mobility device breakdowns and offering transportation in case repairs are unable to be made.

“We enhance independent living,” Blackwell said. “We support people’s health and safety … and give people dignity and freedom to live in the community.”

To provide free services and be an open resource to the Berkeley community, the various organizations are funded through city measures, grants, donations, fees for service work and government funding.

A list of the organizations and services is available on the city of Berkeley website and the ERC website.

Contact Thao Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tnguyen_dc.