[Chapter 10] Breaking Down Barriers: The Rights of People with Disabilities

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Ed Roberts had lived in suburban Burlingame, south of San Francisco, all of his young life. In February 1953, the tall, gregarious fourteen-year-old returned from a Sunday afternoon baseball game feeling ill. The next morning, he awoke with a stiff body. That night he was admitted to the San Mateo County hospital. Two days later, hospital staff rushed the frightened young man to a respirator because he could not breathe. His lungs were not functioning. Paralysis had gradually set into his left side, a result of the poliovirus that had infected his body.

For the next few days, it was uncertain whether Roberts would live. He survived but was almost completely paralyzed from the neck down. He needed an iron lung to breathe.

A Star, Not a Helpless Cripple

The local Soroptimists, a women's civic group, funded special telephone service between Roberts's home and the local high school so that he could listen to classes. By his senior year, Roberts's mother, Zona, thought it would be good for her eldest child to attend one of his classes at school each week. Although the former athlete was uncomfortable with his classmates seeing him in a wheelchair, he acquiesced. He later recalled his first day back at school:

"It was lunchtime; there must have been two hundred students, or it seemed like. They were all eating lunch around this court. So I started to get up, and every one of them turned to stare at me. My worst fear, and one of the reasons that I had not come out at all was that I was terrified of being stared at.…And when I'd look up at them, they'd look away. And something remarkable occurred to me while I was there. The first thing was that it didn't hurt.…The second thing that occurred to me was that maybe it wasn't all my problem, because when I looked back, they would look away.…The third thing was, oh, it was like being a star! I think that was one of the more important times in my life, that I realized I could enjoy it.…Actually, I could enjoy being stared at. If I thought of myself as a star, not just a helpless cripple."

"You fight for what you believe is right"

Roberts developed from a lackadaisical C student into a straight-A high school scholar. But despite his academic performance, a school counselor told Roberts he could not graduate because he had not fulfilled driver's and physical education requirements. Zona Roberts unsuccessfully advocated with the principal to let her son graduate.

She then took her case to a friend on the school board. The board sided with the young man, and he received his diploma. The incident taught him a lifelong lesson: "You don't let people walk all over you; you do something about it. You fight for what you believe is right."

Obstacles to Education

Roberts knew that a college degree was critical. He later explained, "The path to my future and to my working…was going to be education, totally. Because nobody was going to hire me the way I was. There was so much prejudice about disability." He attended College of San Mateo, where an American government class inspired him about the possibility for societal change through politics. He did well at the junior college and applied to UC Berkeley to complete his bachelor's degree.

In the early 1960s, the California Department of Rehabilitation aided individuals who had become disabled and helped retrain them to reenter the workforce. But a counselor from the department considered Roberts too disabled ever to work and denied state funds to cover his education. It took the vigorous advocacy of Roberts, his mother, and officials at the College of San Mateo to convince an upper-level official to reverse the counselor's decision.

"Helpless Cripple Attends U.C. Classes"

Roberts was admitted to UC Berkeley, but at that time administrators were unaware he was disabled. The Dean of Men, Arleigh Williams, could not figure out where the university would house him. His iron lung, which weighed over six hundred pounds, would not fit in dormitory elevators, and other housing venues would not accept the disabled student.

Eventually, Dr. Henry Bruyn, a physician at Cowell Hospital, the university's medical facility, said Roberts could live there. This arrangement conformed to the prevailing conceptual framework of disability as a medical issue that the disabled person must overcome.

News article about Ed RobertsNews article about Ed RobertsStudents with disabilities had attended UC Berkeley before Roberts, but in 1962 he became the first student requiring assistance with essential functions (like getting in and out of bed) to attend the university. To mark this milestone, a local paper ran a story with the headline: "Helpless Cripple Attends U.C. Classes Here in Wheelchair."

A Growing Community

The following year, six-foot-seven-inch John Hessler became the second disabled student to room at Cowell Hospital. Just after completing high school, Hessler had broken his neck in a diving accident that left him a quadriplegic. Because of his size, Hessler's parents could not care for him, and he had been living in a county hospital and taking a taxi to nearby Contra Costa College.

Over the next several years, other students with disabilities moved into Cowell.

Successful Advocacy

In 1968 a counselor from the Department of Rehabilitation assigned to work with disabled students at UC Berkeley drew the ire of the very students she was supposed to help. She told Ed Roberts, who by then was pursuing a doctorate in political science, that he could not write his dissertation on the subject he had chosen. She tried to dismiss two students from the Cowell program because, in her view, they were not performing well enough academically. She threatened to cut off state funding to students who disobeyed her. The students in the program—nearly a dozen—recognized that if the counselor eliminated anyone from the program based solely on her own standards, all students in the program were threatened.

They advocated with her and her supervisor and eventually went to the media, generating critical stories in newspapers as far away as Sacramento. State legislators learned of the students' complaints and began to voice concerns. The counselor was reassigned.

The Rolling Quads

Don Galloway (left) and Ed RobertsDon Galloway (left) and Ed RobertsTo mark their victory, the group dubbed themselves the Rolling Quads. The Rolling Quads focused on inaccessible classrooms, lack of transportation, and other barriers to their self-sufficiency. They successfully advocated with the city of Berkeley for curb cuts at street corners to accommodate wheelchair users, but they needed more resources to realize their vision. Led by John Hessler, they secured federal funds to make the campus accessible to disabled students. With a grant of eighty-one thousand dollars, the university in 1970 established a Physically Disabled Students' Program (PDSP), initially housed in an apartment above a fast food restaurant one block from the campus. The program, directed largely by people with disabilities, helped students find attendants, readers, and accessible places to live and provided wheelchair repair, transportation, personal counseling, financial advising, campus orientations, and preregistration. The program also counseled parents who were wary of allowing their previously sheltered children to attend the university.

A National Model

PDSP's founders knew that they were creating an innovative and powerful model. Social workers around the state and nation heard about the program and interviewed its staff. Similar campus programs for students with disabilities developed in Riverside, Boston, Austin, and Long Island.

In the Berkeley area, non-students with disabilities also sought assistance from the program's staff. Applying their advocacy to the broader community, the campus activists secured government funding, rented a small Berkeley apartment for an office, and founded the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in 1972. The first such center of its kind in the country run by and for people with disabilities, CIL was constituent-driven, providing services like wheelchair repair and referrals to attendants as well as training and advocacy.

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