Ed Roberts is an American disability rights activist who is considered the founder of the independent-living movement. Roberts contracted polio at age 14 and was paralyzed from the neck down. Requiring a respirator to breathe, he experienced tremendous challenges obtaining his education during both high school and college but with his family’s support and his own clear-minded advocacy, he prevailed. While attending U.C. Berkeley, Roberts worked with the university to develop the Physically Disabled Students Program, a program run by and for disabled students to provide wheelchair repair, attendant referral, peer counseling, and other services that would enable physically disabled students to live successfully in the community. Roberts earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1964 and by 1966 had completed a master’s degree, also in political science.
In 1972, Roberts along with other members of the Physically Disabled Students Program joined together to found the Center for Independent Living, an advocacy group that fought for changes that would give people with disabilities access to community life in Berkeley. The group’s first success was the installation of curb cuts that permitted wheelchair access.
Roberts was appointed director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in 1976, an agency that in 1962 had deemed Roberts too disabled to hold a job. There, he facilitated the establishment of independent living centers throughout the state. He also traveled internationally to lobby for disability rights. Following his death, a center for people with disabilities was created in his honor in Berkeley.