Day to Honor Local Disability Rights Activist

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Ed Roberts, often called the father of the disability rights movement, joined the likes of environmental activist John Muir, gay rights activist Harvey Milk and former President Ronald Reagan last Monday when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill declaring Jan. 23 "Ed Roberts Day" in California.

The bill, first introduced by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, marks every Jan. 23 "as having special significance," in honor of the late UC Berkeley alumnus.

Roberts, who became paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio at age 14, was the first permanently wheelchair-using student to attend the campus, where he soon after became active in the disability rights movement in 1962. He died of natural causes in 1995 at age 56.

Last Monday, Schwarzenegger also signed a bill proclaiming every Feb. 6 "Ronald Reagan Day" in honor of the late governor and president.

"Imagine a Cal alumni on the same day being elevated to that level of a president," said Paul Hippolitus, director of the campus's Disabled Students' Program. "That's what those days are reserved for. Really powerful historic figures."

After teaching political science on campus for six years and founding several organizations for disabled people's rights, such as the local Center for Independent Living, Roberts was appointed director of the California Department of Rehabilitation in 1975 by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Roberts served as director of the department until 1983, when he co-founded the World Institute on Disability.

While Roberts served the disabled community across the globe, Hippolitus said his activism in Berkeley helped make the city one of the most disabled-friendly places in the country.

"The city of Berkeley is the most accessible city in the nation," he said. "This area leads the way and the reason for that is that Ed Roberts started the (disabled rights) movement early on."

UC Berkeley senior Alex Ghenis, who interned for Sen. Hancock's office and gathered support for the bill, said the bill's passage marks the first time a major disability rights activist has been recognized by the state.

"Ed Roberts Day is something that's completely unprecedented," Ghenis said. "I would hope that it not only recognizes him but that it recognizes the movement that he started and really encourages people to think critically about that going forward."

The bill encourages public schools and educational institutions to implement exercises remembering Roberts and other disability activists on Ed Roberts Day while informing students about disabilities.

In Berkeley, organizers are already recognizing Roberts' contributions to the disabled community with the introduction of the Ed Roberts Campus, currently under construction at the Ashby BART station.

"It's important that there's a person in the disability movement who's getting that kind of recognition," said Dmitri Belser, president of the Ed Roberts Campus. "It's an ongoing fight."

The project, initiated in 1995 after Roberts' death, will house several disability organizations in a collaborative effort to further support disabled people who are currently facing proposed cuts to state disability services.

"What's being cut are things that spell the difference between institutional living and independent living," Hippolitus said.


Contact Matt Burris at [email protected]

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