The Independent Living Movement grew out of the Disability Rights movement which began in the United States in the 1960’s. Over the last number of decades, the Independent Living movement has spread from North America across the world. Led by Ed Roberts who is often referred to as the father of Independent Living the first Center of Independent Living was founded in America. ENIL would like to pay tribute to Ed Roberts for all his achievements and for providing inspiration to so many people by inducting him into the ENIL Hall of Fame.
Edward Verne Roberts (January 23, 1939 – March 14, 1995) was an American activist and one of the first students with high level needs to attend the University of California, Berkeley. He was a pioneering leader of the disability rights movement.
Roberts contracted polio at the age of fourteen in 1953, two years before the Salk vaccine put an end to the epidemic. He spent eighteen months in hospitals and returned home paralyzed from the neck down except for two fingers on one hand and several toes. He slept in an iron lung at night and spent time in the lung during the day as well. He used “frog breathing”, a technique for swallowing air using facial and neck muscles to survive outside of the iron lung.
Roberts attended school first by telephone and then physically thanks to his mother’s insistence. He had fear of being stared at but transformed his sense of personal identity by giving up thinking of himself as a helpless cripple and instead thinking of himself as a star. He credited his mother for teaching him how to fight for what he needed.
Ed’s career as an advocate began when his high school diploma was denied because he had not completed driver’s education and physical education, he successfully fought against this and was given his high school diploma. Roberts went on to attend the College of San Mateo and the University of California in Berkeley. He had to fight to attend the University of California as he was considered too severely disabled to ever be employed.
Robert and his friends became known as the “Rolling Quads”, a group of disabled people who fought for the right to attend university. The group’s success on campus inspired them to advocate for curb cuts, opening access to the wider community, and to create the Physically Disabled Student’s Program (PDSP) – the first student led disability services program in the country.
Robert’s did not create the Berkeley Center for Independent Living (CIL), the first independent living service and advocacy program run by and for disabled people, but guided the Center for Independent Living’s rapid growth during a decisive time for the emerging disability rights movement. The Center for Independent Living provided a model addressing the needs and concerns of disabled people.
Governor Jerry Brown appointed Ed Roberts in 1976 as the Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation – the same agency that had once labeled him too severely disabled to work. He served until 1983. When California politics shifted to the right, he returned again to Berkeley where he co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Judy Heumann and Joan Leon.
Roberts died at the age of 56 on March 14, 1995 but will always be remembered for his pioneering work.