Disability 101: The Disability Rights Movement
August 1, 2010
July 26 was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), our most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. Celebrations were held throughout the U.S. marking this anniversary. Many of these events celebrated the history of the disability rights movement, which led to the ADA.
I have been totally enthralled studying this history. So I’m going to share with you the stories that captured my heart. The story that hit me hardest is the story of Ed Roberts, a disability activist and the father of the independent living movement.
Roberts contracted polio in 1953 at age 14 and was paralyzed from the neck down. He was able to move only two fingers and continued to rely on an iron lung to breathe during the night. He completed high school by telephone. However, high school administrators refused to grant him a high school diploma because he had not completed P.E. and driver education requirements.
His career in advocacy began when he and his mother took their protest to the school board. The school board granted his diploma.
After attending a community college, in 1962 Roberts wished to continue his education at the University of California at Berkeley. One of the deans was opposed to his enrollment, stating: “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” One of the issues was a lack of accessible student housing. In the end, Roberts was enrolled, the first student with a severe disability to attend UC Berkeley. He lived in the campus hospital, though he demanded it be treated as a dormitory.
Other students with significant disabilities soon enrolled and joined Roberts living in the campus hospital. They called themselves the Rolling Quads. In 1968, a rehabilitation counselor from the California Department of Rehabilitation decided that two of the Rolling Quads would never be able to work and attempted to send the two to a nursing home.
The Rolling Quads began their protest and went to the media. The rehabilitation counselor was reassigned and the two were reinstated.
Roberts, who received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from UC Berkeley and worked toward his doctorate, developed the Physically Disabled Students Program to provide peer counseling and support for students with disabilities. It was the first student-led, university disability services program in the nation.
Among it’s guiding principles: people with disabilities are the best experts on disability and people with disabilities should be fully integrated in the community.
The Rolling Quads saw the need for access outside of the university campus. Roberts helped establish the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, which provided supports and advocacy allowing people with disabilities to live independently in the community. This turned into a nationwide movement. There are now independent living centers throughout our country.
Roberts was later appointed the director of the California Department of Rehabilitation and co-founded the World Institute on Disability.
In 1977, Roberts was one of the
leaders of a sit-in held at a federal building in San Francisco to demand the signing of regulations to enforce the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first civil rights legislation protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The sit-in lasted 27 days. Roberts shared these comments at their victory rally:
“And that’s the greatest example, that we, who are considered the weakest, the most helpless people in our society, are the strongest, and will not tolerate segregation, will not tolerate a society which sees us as less than whole people. But that we will together, with our friends, will reshape the image that this society has of us.”