Ed Verne Roberts, born January 23, 1939 and passed away from cardiac arrest on March 14, 1995, was an American activist for the rights of the severely disabled. Paralyzed from the neck down after a bout with polio at age 14 – two years before the Salk vaccine made the pandemic a horror of the past – Roberts became the ‘Father of the Independent Living Movement’ after an administrator at his high school tried to deny Roberts his diploma just because he had not been able to complete Driver’s Ed or Physical Ed.
Roberts even had to fight to get support from Vocational Rehabilitation, as his counselor considered him too disabled to ever get a job. When he applied to the University of California at Berkeley, one of the deans made the infamous comment, “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” However, the other administrators wanted to give Roberts a chance, and he graduated from the university in 1964 with a B.A. and 1966 with an M.A. in Political Science. He started his Ph.D but never finished.
While at Berkeley, Roberts and other disabled students fashioned themselves ‘The Rolling Quads’ and thus began their political voice – the non handicapped had never before seen such unity and positive affirmations from those of disability. When two Quad members were threatened with eviction from the residence (Cowell) which had become the dormitory of the disabled (due to Roberts’ need to sleep every night in his 800 lb. Iron Lung, which could not be utilized in the ‘regular’ dorms), the other members fought successfully to keep their fellow students in the residence, and the counselor was transferred to another school.
The activists created the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the first of its kind to be run by and for the disabled yet Roberts was not a part of this program though many mistakenly believe he was. In 1976, under California Governor Jerry Brown, Roberts was appointed Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation – the same agency that rejected Roberts as being ‘too disabled to work’. What an irony. Roberts held the directorship until 1983.
The day after his passing, Roberts’ empty wheelchair was pushed by a volunteer in a symbolic touch during a memorial march of 500+ disability advocates, from Upper Senate Park to the Senate office building, where a vigil in his honor was held. The Smithsonian Institution was given the wheelchair. As a result of Ed Roberts’ lifelong battle for the rights of the disabled, the day of his birth (today) was declared a date of special significance by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. The bill was introduced by state Senator Loni Hancock (Democrat – of course).
No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement by Joseph Shapiro (1993) highlights key moments in Ed Roberts’ life. And today, Google honored Ed Roberts on what would have been his 78th birthday with a Google Doodle.