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The Other Activists of the ’60s

A New Collection of Original Papers and Histories Documents Disability

by Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 4, 1998

Few people know it, but while Mario Savio strode the steps of Sproul Hall and made a name for Berkeley activism in the ’60s, across campus another young student quietly laid groundwork for a different revolution: the disability rights movement.

Far from the cheering crowds on Sproul Plaza, Ed Roberts came to Berkeley packing an iron lung and push wheelchair. A polio survivor, he retained little use of his arms and legs, and when he sought student housing he was told “iron lungs don’t fit in dorm rooms.”

“The disability rights movement began the day Roberts arrived on the Berkeley campus,” said Joseph Shapiro, a writer for U.S. News and World Report and author of “No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.”

However, unlike Berkeley’s famous Free Speech Movement, the work of the small band Roberts inspired is little known and less documented, though it revolutionized the lives of people with disabilities and led to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

So Berkeley is building a new collection of original documents and histories funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Already the archive contains several hundred cartons of records, and 35 oral histories are planned.

“The book has not been written on this history. But it’s particularly good for people here at Berkeley to know about it, because this is one of the most astounding things that has happened on this campus,” said Bonnie Hardwick, curator at the Bancroft Library and head of the new project.

Oral histories “are especially important because a lot of these disabled people did not write much, maybe were not able to write, so there is not a rich written record,” said Ann Lage, principal editor on the project for the Oral History Office. And, she added, sometimes personal interviews reveal what the written record doesn’t.

A slight young man, Ed Roberts contracted polio when he was 14. The illness left him dependent on an iron lung for up to 18 hours each day. During his years at Berkeley, he was sometimes carried up stairways in his wheelchair to attend classes and was once threatened with arrest by city police for not using proper bathroom facilities in an era when toilets were not wheelchair-accessible.

But Roberts, who would go on to help found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and become the state’s first disabled director of the Department of Rehabilitation, never had it easy. In his senior year of high school, he was denied a diploma because he was not able to pass two required courses: physical education and driver’s training.

“I had gone from a bad student in grammar school, really not an ‘F’ student, but basically a ‘C’ student, to in high school I had become a straight ‘A’ student,” Roberts, who is now deceased, said in an oral history he gave in 1994. “I was learning how to write papers and was doing all kinds of stuff. My mother was pretty smart and helped me do a lot of stuff. Basically, I learned through her tutelage, and other students, how to write and how to take tests and all kinds of things. I was pretty proud.

“I filed for graduation ... and what happened then was almost immediately the school came back and said, ‘You cannot graduate. You don’t have enough required credits.’ We said, ‘What? I’ve fulfilled all my academic (requirements). I’ve taken college prep and done well.’ They said, ‘But you have not had driver training and P.E., and these are state requirements.’”

“I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to need driver training.” Later we said, ‘Well, I’ve had physical therapy,’ and they said, ‘No, no, that’s not good enough.’”

“I remember my mother once, in a state of sarcasm, looking at the principal and saying, ‘Well, we’ll put him in the (driver’s) seat, and I will get behind him and I will drive him.’”

Roberts received his diploma when the school board intervened on his behalf. But this was only the first of many battles to come.

“I learned a lot from that fight,” said Roberts. “You don’t let people walk all over you, you do something about it. You fight for what you believe is right, and that taught me. I think that was the model I followed ever since.”

Roberts went on to fight for rehabilitation funds to attend college and for entry to a school that would have him. And when at last he headed for Berkeley, he was discouraged because iron lungs didn’t fit in dorm rooms.

“I think we almost gave up because of that,” said Roberts.

After a second rejection at International House – “they were too freaked out to deal with me,” said Roberts – Cowell Hospital was suggested. The director, Henry Bruyn, “knew a lot about polio,” said Roberts. “He looked at me and he thought to himself. He said out loud, I remember it was one of the first things he said, ‘there must be a lot of people your age from those old polio epidemics that are ready to go on now to college, and they don’t have much help.’”

Bruyn offered Roberts a home at the hospital and Roberts accepted, becoming the first severely disabled student to attend Berkeley.

“Over the course of the next eight years, about a dozen students joined him,” said Susan O’Hara, former director of the campus Disabled Students’ Program. From securing curb cuts on Telegraph Avenue to building a fleet of motorized wheelchairs and figuring out efficient ways to schedule personal attendants, the students set about making the changes they needed.

In the summer of ’71, O’Hara herself was coping with disabilities from polio when she came to study at Berkeley and live at Cowell.

“The disabled students program lent me a motorized chair,” she said. “It revolutionized my life. There were no curb ramps in the country except on Telegraph Avenue. You can’t go anywhere in a motorized wheelchair without curb ramps. But I could go from Bancroft to Dwight.

“It was thrilling. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was,” she said.

By the time O’Hara arrived, a few students had already ventured out of Cowell to live on their own. “It’s hard to describe how revolutionary this was because now it’s so normal. They rigged up ways to open table-top ovens, if they didn’t have finger dexterity; they had special tables built. I sort of looked at what they were doing and said, ‘I can do that.’

“This was the beginning of the independent living movement in Berkeley,” she said. “They did it for themselves and then other people followed.”

O’Hara, who headed the Disabled Students’ Program on campus from 1988 to 1992, suggested building the new archive at the Bancroft Library.

“I knew we needed to talk to the people who had lived this history .... The grassroots and the struggles and the wars were sort of getting glossed over. The party line said Berkeley was the first, the best, the leader and that it was all very smooth and everybody involved was pretty perfect.”

Not so, said O’Hara. “In typical Berkeley fashion, there were a lot of side issues,” she laughed.

She said Roberts touched off a revolution in the disabled community not only at Berkeley but across the country. How perfect that in the same years Mario Savio exhorted the crowds to throw their bodies upon the gears and wheels of the machine, Roberts and a handful of others challenged the world’s view of disability, changing it forever.

Disability Rights Movement Timeline of Events

1953: 14-year-old Edward V. Roberts survives polio, is left paralyzed.

1962: Roberts becomes first severely disabled student to gain entry to Berkeley.

1969: Roberts and others start Berkeley’s first disabled students’ group, “The Rolling Quads.”

1970: Berkeley disabled students win an appeal to the city of Berkeley for curb cuts, making Berkeley one of the most disabled-accessible U.S. cities.

1970: Disabled students help create Berkeley’s first official Physically Disabled Students’ Program.

1972: The Center for Independent Living is founded in Berkeley.

1973: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits federally funded institutions from discriminating against the disabled.

1975: Roberts named director of California’s Department of Rehabilitation.

1975: Education of All Handicapped Children Act passes, first federal guarantee that disabled children can go to school.

1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act, a far-reaching federal statue, prohibits discrimination against millions of disabled Americans.

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