Ed Roberts: disability rights activist

Photo of Ed Roberts sitting in his wheelchair with a tube in his mouth, looking at a young boy and smiling.
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“Get political or die, or go to a nursing home. If you’re not part of the political process, people will be talking for you” –Ed Roberts


It’s time for a disability history pop quiz!

For what is Ed Roberts known?

A. founding the Independent Living movement

B. helping create Disabled Student Services at UC Berkeley

C. co-founding the World Institute on Disability

D. all of the above

If you chose “D,” you’re correct!

Ed Roberts is considered to be the founder of the independent living movement. A leader and activist, Roberts was a promoter of self-advocacy, independent living, educational access, and the right of people with disabilities to make decisions about their own lives.

Roberts was born in 1939 and grew up with a passion for baseball. At the age of 14, he contracted polio and was paralyzed as a result (128). Ed was told and believed that he would be nothing but a “vegetable,” and eventually tried to die by refusing to eat (Fleischer and Zames 37). After his nurse quit, though, Ed realized he had power to make decisions about his own life and decided that he wanted to live life fully (ibid).

Ed began to participate in his high school classes over the phone, and by his senior year, was able to attend the school in person. After two years of community college, he was determined to attend UC Berkeley (Kent and Quinlan 128). It was at Berkeley that Roberts began his political activism and organizing.

Berkeley’s campus was physically inaccessible, so Roberts and many other students with disabilities lived together on a floor in Berkeley’s Cowell Hospital. The group called themselves the “Rolling Quads” and spent their time organizing, discussing their perspectives on life, and experiencing the other collegiate opportunities available to students who did not have disabilities (Shapiro 47). Inspired by the activist culture on campus and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Roberts and the Rolling Quads began advocating for more independence.

With the help of an advisor, Roberts created Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program, designed to address the needs of students with disabilities (Fleischer and Zames 39). From there, the Rolling Quads established the Center for Independent Living, an agency for people with disabilities that promoted community-based living and self-advocacy (ibid). In 1975, Ed was appointed the director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation by Governor Jerry Brown (Kent and Quinlan 131). In 1984, Roberts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, which he and his colleagues Judy Heumann and Joan Leon, used to create the World Institute on Disability.

Roberts’ life was devoted to defying stereotypes and increasing independence. He worked to frame discussions of disability as an issue of civil rights. He died in 1995 at age 56 (Hurst).

Works Cited

Fleischer, Doris Zames and Freida Zames. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.

Hurst, Rachel. “No Vegetable Life: Obituary Ed Roberts.” The Guardian. 25 Apr 1995: Features Page, T.013. Print.

Kent, Deborah and Kathryn A. Quinlan. Extraordinary People with Disabilities. Danbury: Children’s Press, 1996. Print.

Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994. Print.