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Ed Roberts

“Whatever it is that makes you different is pretty irrelevant. It’s who you are as a person that’s the most relevant thing of all.”

Ed Roberts contracted polio at age 14 in 1953. For the first year of his illness, he spent all of his time in a hospital.   He was paralyzed from the neck down.  Eventually he left the hospital, but had to a lot of his time in an iron lung. For a while, he thought of himself as a "helpless cripple," but eventually he graduated from high school after he and his mother worked to have the physical education and driver’s license requirements for graduation waived.

His disability forced him to do things and learn things that many young people never have to.  “I’ve come to terms with death.  I’m not afraid of that.  I had to when I was 14 or 15.  The first thing I had to decide was whether I wanted to live or die, which is a very difficult decision.”

He waited until he was a senior to return to the school itself. “I remember being unloaded from the car. Everyone was staring at me. I was so different. I knew that I could respond by feeling ugly, OR that I could see that I was different and that it could almost make me a star. I think that at that moment I began to understand that I could take all my self-hatred, and all the energy that comes from it, and destroy myself, or – and this is a very big ‘or’ – I could use that energy to do something with my life, to take the next step.”  Today when people stare at him with pity his reaction is “while they see me as weak and unable, I’m not, and I come on strong and capable. . . ”

Ed Roberts is often called the father of the disability rights movement. His work began in an effort to go to college. He had to work hard, including suing the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation because they thought he was too disabled. It was a battle to get University of California at Berkeley to accept him, because, as a dean explained, "We've tried cripples before and it didn't work."

Instead of living in a dorm, the university housed him in the student infirmary, as it was the only room on campus with a floor that could support the weight of his iron lung. As other quadriplegics in wheelchairs gained admission, and were also housed in the infirmary, they began to push for more rights on campus.

Roberts started the drive for basic accommodations such as curb cuts on campus. With the addition of five other severely-disabled students, who called themselves the "rolling quads," he lobbied for the creation for the first disabled students’ program at a university.

Their on campus success led to pursuit of access and rights in the community. This led to Roberts becoming one of the founding members of and directors of the Center for Independent Living and World Institute on Disability.  Roberts would later become the Director for the California State Office of Rehabilitation.

He earned B.A. (1964) and M.A. (1966) degrees from UC Berkeley in Political Science. He became an official Ph.D. Candidate (C.Phil.) in political science at Berkeley in 1969, but did not complete his Ph.D.

Find out more about Ed Roberts and about his life.