Today we remember the history and legacy of Ed Roberts, civil rights leader for people with disabilities as told by Jessica Riestra, a young disabled Latina that serves as the Statewide Youth Organizer for YO! Disabled and Proud – a program of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.
History is defined by how we perceive it. Ed Roberts is a hero to all those whose voices are often forgotten. Ed Roberts’ history speaks a lot about the courage and strength it takes to move forward no matter the obstacles one faces. Ed faced many challenges in life. Beginning at age 14 when he contracted polio. While obstacles became a part of life for Ed, he realized early on that using these experiences to become a better advocate would improve society for him and many others.
Ed’s luck did not change when it came to pursuing higher education. As a young disabled man with a significant disability, he experienced various forms of discrimination. Yet through hard work and perseverance, convinced the University of California at Berkeley to admit him which led to him initially being known as the first “severely” disabled student to attend and graduate from Cal.
Ed not only secured a master’s degree, but he also impacted his fellow disabled peers in ways he never imagined. He became a positive example, a role model and leader that others wanted to live like – independent and free. While it likely wasn’t talked about in this way, I see it as beginning of what people with disabilities started thinking about as disability pride. Being proud of who you are and that having a disability was a part of it.
As a young adult, Ed became widely known as an activist and founding father of the Independent Living Movement. The concept of Independent Living was to help demonstrate that a person with a disability could work, be educated, have a family and the freedom to be able to do things for themselves without being reliant on institutional settings.
Ed’s vision of Independent Living evolved and became a movement. Not only did his activism result in the development of the first Center for Independent Living located in Berkeley, California, he also caught the attention of other young disabled activists across the country who worked to open and establish their own Centers for Independent Living.
While CILs continue to provide the services that they were originally funded to do, many have also evolved and are working in partnership with other forward-thinking leaders in their communities to do more. Some have become cross-disability community hubs, think tanks for good policy and trusted organizations that work to ensure that independence is understood and implemented. Many play a role in elevating accessibility in civic, diversity and equity conversations that advance inclusive communities for all.
Ed Roberts became a man known for his many titles and roles. He was a son, a student, father, leader, innovator, disrupter, activist, and advocate. He helped lead the 504 sit-in in San Francisco and like many of his peers, was known as a driving force of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and participated in the historic March on Washington for Disability Rights.
Ed Roberts was a powerhouse. Someone I wish we could have all met. His organizing skills and his perception on life motivates me and thousands of others who celebrate and honor his legacy each year, on his birthday, January 23rd.
It’s pretty cool to have a state and federally recognized day in honor of Ed Roberts and I’m sure there will be more disability days of recognition in our future. In fact, you probably know someone that deserves to be recognized for their great advocacy work. Take a moment to send them a text, email or card and share with them how you appreciate their contributions to positive change in honor of Ed, independence, and interdependence this year.