Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ed Roberts: The Civil Rights Leader That Time Forgot

Within earshot, my mother asked the doctor whether I would live or die. "You should hope he dies, because if he lives, he'll be no more than a vegetable for the rest of his life. How would you like to live in an iron lung 24 hours a day?" So I decided to be an artichoke...a little prickly on the outside but with a big heart. You know, the vegetables of the world are uniting, and we're not going away!  -From Highlights From Speeches by Ed Roberts

Last Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Across the country, millions of people received time off from school and work, millions of people honored King's legacy.

But there was another holiday last week, celebrating another great civil rights leader, that went quietly unnoticed by people not in tune with disability culture.  It was Ed Roberts Day.

Ed Roberts was a teenager when he contracted polio, which left him unable to move any part of his body below his neck, except for two fingers, and unable to breathe without the aid of an iron lung.  After a period of trying to commit suicide, Roberts decided that he was going to live life on his own terms.  He taught himself to swallow air so he could spend short periods outside the iron lung, using a power wheelchair.  He completed high school mostly by phone.  And then, after completing community college, he decided he wanted to go to the University of California at Berkeley.

Now, in the world we live in today, the world of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, this may not seem like such an implausible idea.  But remember, this was 1963.  The world was having a tough enough time with the suggestion that Black people should be equal members of the population.  The suggestion that disabled people - particularly disabled people who needed as extensive support as Roberts - should be afforded equal opportunities as well was ludicrous.  Roberts was practically laughed out of the school.  An admissions officer told him:  "We've tried cripples before and it didn't work."

But Ed Roberts was undeterred.  Eventually, the university allowed him to attend - and he set up a one-man dorm room in the university infirmary, which was the only place on campus that could accommodate his iron lung.  Nowadays, of course, we'd call that discrimination, separate and unequal.  And it was discrimination in those days too.  The only difference was that it was completely and totally legal, and Ed Roberts wisely took what he could get.  He attended classes, flirted with girls, and participated in the liberal hippie culture of the '60s - just like everyone else.  That equality was hard-won, and it was huge.

By 1967, word had spread, and eleven other physically disabled people had joined Roberts in the infirmary dorm.  They called themselves The Rolling Quads and together they helped to found the Disabled Student's Program (DSP) at Berkeley - a program that is still regarded as one of the best in the nation for physically disabled students.  Roberts and his comrades helped other disabled students get jobs, find apartments, and succeed in life.  What grew out of that was an astonishing organization - the nation's first Center for Independent Living.  Eventually, Roberts was selected to become the Director of the State Department of Rehabilitation.

Ed Roberts was a pioneer.  Without his willingness to subvert the status quo and encourage others to do the same, the laws that protect our rights probably would have never been enacted.  Without Ed Roberts, I would not have been able to dorm at my college.  I probably would not have been able to go to college at all.  Ed Roberts knew that we deserved equal rights, and he went after them.  Sound familiar?  I could say the same about Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet no one taught me about Ed Roberts.  He wasn't mentioned in my textbooks.  There were no lessons exploring his impact.  I learned about him on my own, at age fourteen, desperately clicking from blog to blog, website to website, gulping down the information greedily as if at any moment my history would be stolen from me.  I learned about him alone, in my basement, privately constructing my own revolution of thought.

So I am telling you now - THIS was Ed Roberts.  THIS was our Martin Luther King Jr.  He deserves to be honored.  He deserves to be remembered.  And while I hope to God that someday, every schoolchild will know Ed Roberts' name, this is my contingency plan.  This post, these words are to make sure that disabled children in future generations will know who Ed Roberts was, will know that they had a leader and that people fought for their rights before they were even born.

Take a good, long look, kids.  This is your Martin Luther King Jr., this is your Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  This is Ed Roberts.

(Videos show Ed Roberts on "60 Minutes" and excerpts from Ed Roberts' speeches, respectively.  Transcripts are available at the YouTube links.)

Information obtained from No Pity by Joseph Shapiro as well as Internet sources embedded in this post.  


Anonymous said...

Last year a teenaged wheelchair user asked if me if a person using a wheelchair could never be elected as president. He doubted it would ever happen.

I was supposed to be observing his physical therapy evaluation but I managed to sandwich some disability history in along with it. Because he had gotten more than halfway through high school without anyone ever having taught him or his classmates about FDR.

No one is teaching our kids our history, because they are so focused on getting us to be/think/act/appear non-disabled that no one believes we even HAVE our own history.

I've put Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads on a timeline of things for health care students to understand about disability before they graduate. So perhaps that will help trickle down in the future?