14 December 2011

The Power of Ed Roberts

The Power of Ed Roberts
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez
Originally published for the Hearing Loss Association of California
December 14, 2011

Why should young people care about Ed Roberts?

First of all, do you even know who he is? You probably have a neighbor named Ed Roberts. Even if you do not, I don't need to wonder why you have never heard his name before.

Two years ago, I gave a presentation in several college classrooms that included a slide of three images set next to one another: Martin Luther King Jr, Harvey Milk, and Ed Roberts. I asked them to name the people in the images. I think only one person recognized Ed Roberts. One.

Ed Roberts was a disability rights activist. He went to UC Berkeley and helped launch the Physically Disabled Students Program run by students with disabilities. He changed the way that architecture could be accessed by people with disabilities. He was a pioneer in the independent living movement. He served on various boards, was a vital part of the emergence of the Center for Independent Living, and co-founded the World Institute on Disability. He did this all before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)...because he spoke up. And he didn't do it alone. His actions were part of a nationwide movement that affirmed the dignity and potential of all people with disabilities to make their own decisions about the lives they wanted to live.

Why should students know about Ed Roberts? The same reason why you should know about Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony. They represent movements. Minority groups. You.

In the past year, the newly redesigned Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley opened. It's a model of universal design - design that is accessible for all. Ed, who died in 1995, would have liked that.

The California Museum recently inducted him into their Hall of Fame.

But is he in your textbooks? On the walls of your classroom? A part of the curriculum? In classroom discussions? If he isn't, he should be - along with countless others who were a vital part of the disability rights movement before and after the ADA, including Justin Dart Jr, Laura Hershey, Paul Longmore, Harriet McBryde Johnson, Leroy Moore, and Kate Gainer. As a young person, you have the power to organize in your hands. You can demand to have disability history in the curriculum. Justin Dart Jr once said "Get into empowerment." Go for it!


  1. Thanks Rhi. We all need to be very grateuful to him, for what he started on our behalf. Here is a link to the PBS IndependantLens web page for the film Lives Worth Living.

  2. Powerful essay, Rhi. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Hi Rhi,
    Thanks for the great article. I love what you do and keep up the great work, Yeah for Rhi. . .

    Here's a link to a hort film on Ed, Wade, and Justin

    Its Just Us

    created by Eric Clow, a HS Senior for California History Day, these 3-minute biographies of Ed Roberts, Wade Blank, and Justin Dart are book-ended with a one minute intro and one minute conclusion of the disability rights movement.

    Running Time: 11 min