History of disability rights movement at UC Berkeley inspires advocacy today

Illustration of three young, disabled individuals standing up for Disability Justice, with a historical photo collage behind.
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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UC Berkeley is known as the home of the disability rights movement due to a rich history of student activism and advocacy.

This history largely began in 1962 when Ed Roberts, who was paralyzed by polio and required the use of an iron lung for survival, became the first severely disabled student at UC Berkeley after originally being rejected from campus. Admissions, however, was not the last challenge for Roberts, whose efforts for campus accessibility inspire students working in disability rights today: He initially struggled to find housing that could fulfill his needs.

“We almost gave up because of that,” Roberts said in an episode of “The Berkeley Remix” podcast. “It seemed like wherever we went, it was like, those places are too freaked out to deal with me.”

He eventually moved into Cowell Memorial Hospital and inspired other disabled students, about 12 in total originally, to come to campus.

Roberts and the other students then formed the Rolling Quads, an advocacy group for students with disabilities. In the 1970s, he helped found the Physically Disabled Students’ Program, or PDSP, and a residence program with a staff of attendants was founded to help the students with independent living in the hospital.

“Berkeley was the antagonist in that story. … They denied him and they segregated him (in the hospital),” said campus senior Alena Morales, who helped form the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, a descendant of the original Rolling Quads group.

The residence program was later moved from Cowell Memorial Hospital to Unit 2, in part to reduce the stigma against the students, according to the website of the current Disabled Students’ Program. In 1982, PDSP was also renamed the “Disabled Students’ Program,” as it is known today, to include students with learning and mental disabilities.

In 1972, Roberts, with UC Berkeley students Hale Zukas and Jan McEwan Brown, founded the Center for Independent Living, or TheCIL, and went on to start the independent living movement, according to Stuart James, the current executive director of TheCIL.

They fought to change the perceptions around disability, increase accessibility and gain more control over their own decision-making and lives, James said.

“At that time, it was really more about being the antagonist, poking the bear and changing the system,” James said. “It was the Civil Rights Movement; people were protesting a lot of things.”

Eventually, TheCIL expanded from a student group to a community organization. One of its main early actions, according to James, was participation in an almost month-long occupation of the federal courthouse in San Francisco. The protest was held in favor of the implementation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973’s Section 504, which guaranteed rights for people with disabilities and was the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, of 1990.

After the implementation of Section 504 and the passage of the ADA, according to James, TheCIL’s purpose shifted mainly to focusing on ensuring institutions and businesses complied with the laws.

Since then, James has changed the direction of TheCIL back to an educational focus to normalize disabilities and end the notion that disabled people are incapable of activities and of being successful. He added that TheCIL is now less antagonistic and wants to help able-bodied, neurotypical people understand disability and improve accessibility.

“This movement, like any movement, had the need to evolve,” James said. “Today’s problems are very different than in the 1970s.”

As for the Disabled Students’ Residence Program, its funding was cut in 2016, according to Morales, who said she noticed a drop in the population of students with disabilities afterward. Her organization is currently advocating for the program to be refunded and expanded to include more disabled people than just those with a severe physical disability.

Roberts died in 1995 at the age of 56. He has since become known as the father of the independent living movement, and in 2010 the U.S. House of Representatives named Jan. 23 Ed Roberts Day in his memory.

Kate Finman is the lead student government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.