Ed Roberts, the disability rights activist, is the subject of the January 23. Roberts was born on January 23, 1939 and would be celebrating his 78th birthday, were he alive today. He died on March 14, 1995 at age 56.
Here’s a look at Roberts’ life and career.
1. Roberts Contracted Polio at Age 14 & Was Paralyzed From the Neck Down
When Roberts was 14 years old in 1953, he contracted polio. Jonas Salk’s vaccine would not be widely available for another two years.
According to his New York Times obituary, Roberts was paralyzed from the neck down and only had motion in one finger. He needed an iron lung or respirator to breathe.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say I’d rather be dead than be like you,” Roberts once said in a film called Free Wheeling. “And they miss it so much because life is such a joy. There’s so much to life if you’re into it. There’s so many reasons to die if you’re not at all.”
2. Roberts Became an Activist in High School, When He Was Denied a Diploma Because He couldn’t Finish Gym Class
Roberts became an activist in high school when he was initially refused a diploma because he could not take physical education or pass driver’s education. Robert then had to file a petition to get his diploma, which he eventually received.
Roberts first attended the College of San Mateo before becoming the first severely disabled student to attend the University of California, Berkeley in 1962.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, an official at UC Berkeley who was hesitant to admit him said, “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.”
“When people would walk up to me, they would talk to my attendant,” Roberts recalled in a 1994 interview, notes the Smithsonian. “I was almost a nonentity.”
Roberts earned a bachelor’s and Master’s degree and spent his time at Berkeley helping to organize a self-help group for others with disabilities. He also taught political science at UC Berkeley.
3. Roberts Is Considered to be the Father of the Independent Living Movement
Roberts is considered the father of the Independent Living Movement, although he was not the founder of Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living. He did work to transform it into what it is today and the model for other independent living centers around the country. Roberts was the executive director of Berkeley’s CIL from 1972 to 1975.
The Ed Roberts Campus is named after Roberts and is designed to be accessible to everyone.
4. Jerry Brown Made Roberts the Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in 1976
In 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown named Roberts the director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. That was the same agency Roberts tried to get a job at in 1962, but he was considered too disabled to be hired.
5. Roberts’ Wheelchair Is Now in the Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution now houses Roberts’ wheelchair at the National Museum of American History.
“When he came into the room he captured people’s attention,” Joan Leon, a co-founder, with Roberts, of the World Institute on Disability, told the Smithsonian Magazine in 2015. “He kept that attention by moving his chair slightly—rolling it back and forth, lifting and lowering the foot pedals, and raising and releasing the back, even honking the horn or turning on the light.”
The wheelchair is not currently on view.