Ed Roberts and His Fight For Civil Rights

Happy birthday to Ed Roberts, who would have turned 80 today. Few have done more to help people with disabilities and special needs than him.

He contracted polio at age 14.  He barely survived.

He attended school by phone for several years.

When he returned to school, he was often stared at and mocked. A high school administrator threatened him that he would not graduate because he didn’t take P.E. or driver’s ed.

He made an important decision. He would not let his self image be that of a “helpless cripple”, but of a “star.”

He fought to get into the University of California, and fought to make the university provide more opportunities for inclusion by students with special needs.  He graduated with a degree in political science in 1964, and then a masters degree in political science in 1966.

He fought for independent living centers, facilities that had greater access for people in wheelchairs, and a general increase in the respect level for those faced with challenges similar to his.

Photo Credit: San Francisco Chronicle

In an interview on 60 minutes, Roberts said:

There are very few people even with the most severe disabilities who can’t take control of their own life. The problem is that people around us don’t expect us to. We built a system, a political system, and a system of public policy based on old attitudes that actually allow us off the hook, to have no expectations, that believe that we will not work or participate in our… in our communities when in fact we’ve discovered that the reality is just the opposite.”

He led groups to pressure President Nixon to include section 504 of the 1973 American’s with disabilities act. This stated that no organization receiving federal money could exclude people because of a disability. Hundreds of thousands of kids across America today are in a better position to be included, have success, and contribute to society because of 504 plans.

He would go on to be named the director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. An organization that once told him, “You are too crippled to work.”

Miami Herald

Thank you to Ed Roberts and others who fought for the rights of all humans to be given a fair chance and the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

January 23 was declared Ed Roberts day in California by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005.  In 2010, the entire country began honoring Ed Roberts Day after a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.


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