Know Your Disability History: Ed Roberts

1962 was a monumental year for the disability rights movement, even if Ed Roberts didn’t know it at the time.  The fall of 1962 was when Roberts began his education at University of California at Berkeley. Attending college isn’t noteworthy all on its own, but Roberts had survived polio as a child.  He was a quadriplegic and spent most of the day in an iron lung. Roberts had inadvertently begun to push the disability rights movement forward, specifically into independent living. (Note: This was originally going to just be a single article, but it quickly became clear more than one is necessary.)


Before we dive into exactly how Ed Roberts spearheaded this movement, a little background on both Roberts and UC Berkeley.  After his diagnosis, and then being told he would survive, Roberts spent months confined to a hospital room.  He spent the vast majority of his days in an iron lung, a mechanical device that uses external pressure to help someone breathe.  Roberts fell into depression, and even tried to kill himself via starvation. However, he decided, after his first private nurse left, to start eating again.  Not allowing anyone to tell him when or what to eat became his first act of empowerment.

A Strong Will And A Strong Mind

After nearly two years in the hospital, he and his iron lung were able to return to his home in Burlingame, California.  Roberts, who was now two years behind academically, attended school via telephone. During this time, he realized that despite his body not functioning like it once did, his mind was still in tact.  His health continued to improve, and he was able to attend school in person for his final year.  

At first, Roberts was embarrassed to attend school in a wheelchair.  He had accepted his disability as part of his identity, but others were not so quick to do the same.  Roberts was “a freak in a wheelchair” or “the poor boy in the machine”. He was determined to prove these individuals wrong, which empowered him even more.  Roberts graduated high school that year, after fighting to have driving class waived. He also fought to allow his rehab to count as physical education. He would later cite this was one of his first lessons in advocacy.

Achievements In Academics And Advocacy

After Graduating high school, Roberts attended San Mateo Community College.  His intention was to eventually apply to UCLA, as they were one of only four colleges with a program for students in wheelchairs.  However, his academic advisor pushed him to apply to Berkeley, as they had a better political science program. It was here that Roberts ran into his second lesson of advocacy.. California’s department of Rehab initially refused to pay for his four-year education. They puported it to be a waste of money and “infeasible” that Roberts would ever be able to work. The president and dean of students at San Mateo Community College appealed this decision, citing Roberts’s excellent grades. A local newspaper also got involved, which pushed the department of rehab to overturn their ruling.

Overcoming Barriers

Even though he was financially able to attend, UCB was originally hesitant to admit him.  They claimed to have “tried cripples before, and it didn’t work”, citing the inaccessible classrooms, library, and cafeteria.  This was nothing new to Roberts, as he had relied on others to lift him into buildings at San Mateo. The bigger problem was housing.  Roberts still used his iron lung, and none of the flooring in any of the dorms was strong enough to hold its weight. He found his answer in Dr. Henry Bruyn, the director of student health services, who offered to let Roberts live in the university hospital.  It was a less than ideal solution, but it was better than nothing.  

Roberts got around campus with the help of attendants. This was paid for via state funding, which was the first in the nation.  In his mind, Roberts suspected that money was just as big of a barrier as any staircase. For a disabled person like him, living in a non-disabled world required more spending.

The Rolling Quads

Being able to stay off the iron lung for longer periods of time, Roberts felt that being part of campus life was liberating.  He was able to join in on intellectual conversations, attend class, and formed relationships. Though he started being the sole occupant in his makeshift dorm, word of his experiment began to spread.  Other students with severe disabilities soon enrolled and joined Roberts. This group of men became interested in the political upheaval of the time, and began to apply certain concepts to their lives as disabled people.  Particularly, Roberts and his friends, who called themselves “The Rolling Quads”, noted how feminists used stereotypes about women to their advantage.

It might not have seemed like it at the time, but these men would begin to change how the world sees disability.  In the next article, we will discuss some of the achievements of The Rolling Quads, and how they were able to break down barriers and impact the disability rights movement.

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