“The doctor said, ‘Well, maybe you should hope he dies, because if he lives, he’ll be nothing more than a vegetable for the rest of his life.’”
Ed Roberts saw it differently. “If I’m a vegetable, I’ll be an artichoke – prickly on the outside but with a big heart in the middle.”
Edward Verne Roberts was born on January 23, 1939, in San Mateo, California. An athletic and energetic teen, he was stricken with the dreaded polio virus. Ed lost all use of his arms and legs. That was when doctors and others said his life would not be worth living.
It was back in the fall of 1962 that two young men broke barriers by enrolling at college. With the backing of U.S. Marshalls, a Black man named James Meredith attended the University of Mississippi. A white man with a severe physical disability was accepted to the University of California – Berkeley.
As with so many other students graduating high school, the idea of going off to college felt scary – for Ed, even more so. His mother, Zona, recalled him saying, “They’re all going to look at me. And then, he realized, they could look at him, and he could be a star.”
“A lot of years ago, I decided that people were gonna stare at me, and it was a lot better if I decided I was a star rather than a helpless cripple.”
By attending college at the University of California – Berkeley, he could open the door to other students with severe disabilities. And soon enough, other para- and quadriplegic signed up. They named themselves The Rolling Quads. They fought for accessibility changes such as curb cuts.
“There are very few people, even with the most severe disabilities, who cannot take control of their own life. The problem is that people around us don’t expect us to.”
“The most important … is working with other people – moving away from your own problems to help somebody else. And that liberated me when I realized I could help others. It made me a lot freer to help myself.”
This was the beginning of the first Center for Independent Living, and the IL movement. The center was based on “the fundamental principle that people with disabilities are entitled to the same civil rights, options, and control over choices in their lives as people without disabilities.”
On January 23, the Center for Independent Living (UC Berkeley) will host its fifth annual Ed Roberts Awards to recognize and honor “individuals who carry Ed Roberts’s legacy in their work, activism, and contributions.” The theme this year is “The Intersection of Disability and Parenting.”
“We have to show our society that disability doesn’t affect work.”
“The number one issue is still old attitudes toward us, and those old attitudes see us as helpless and unable.”
You can find additional material on the disability rights and self-advocacy movements in the “From Charity to Independent Living” section of No Pity, by Joseph Shapiro.
Ed Roberts was also interviewed on 60 Minutes.