(W)e celebrated Ed Roberts Day by remembering how the “father of the independent living movement” helped change the world’s view of people with disabilities through his activism and community building. The beginnings of Roberts’ activism can be traced back to 1962, when, as a community college student, he persuaded UC Berkeley to accept him into its undergraduate political science program.
At the time, disability resources and civil rights laws were not available to support Deaf and disabled students; campuses and classrooms were not accessible. Roberts was paralyzed from the neck down and needed a ventilator and an iron lung to survive. But the dorms at UC Berkeley could not bear the weight of an 800-pound iron lung, so Roberts had to live at the student health center, Cowell Hospital. On enrolling, Roberts became the first severely disabled student at UC Berkeley.
Despite the skeptics, Roberts used his success as a student to convince the university to accept more quadriplegic students into its academic degree programs. To make the campus accessible for them, Roberts needed to add campus activism and community building to self-advocacy in his leadership skill set. He reflected on the powerful relationship between self-advocacy and activism in the 1995 documentary series, People in Motion:
the most important part of [changing things for people with disabilities] is working with other people. moving away from your own problems to help somebody else. and that liberated me when i realized i could help others. it made me a lot freer to help myself. (“free wheeling”)
By developing his activism and collaboration skills with other disabled students, Roberts felt more able to advocate for himself.
The new students with severe physical disabilities moved in with Roberts at Cowell Hospital, and together they became known as the Rolling Quads. They started the first disabled-student-led campus organization in the U.S., the Physically Disabled Students Program. The organization provided disability services, such as transportation and wheelchair repair, and pushed for the removal of physical barriers to campus access, such as street curbs and stairs. As Roberts remembered years later, the Rolling Quads quickly learned that successful campus activism would require them to confront their own internalized ableism and develop disability pride:
[The Rolling Quads] realized that we could change some things. [But] first we needed to change our own attitudes about ourselves. Be proud of who we were and what we were. And go out and change things for others and for ourselves. (“Free Wheeling”)
For many students with disabilities, college is an important time to meet other Deaf, disabled, and chronically ill students and develop a positive disability identity and support network. But many of us arrive on campus with no prior exposure to disability as a positive identity and as a community with its own history and culture.
The Rolling Quads demonstrated that developing a positive disability identity and community is a crucial step for activists and organizations to create campus change. Today, student-led disability organizations and disabled activists on college and university campuses across the U.S. are carrying on the legacy of the Rolling Quads. Not only are these students making campuses more accessible, increasing available disability resources, and fostering inclusion in the classroom and in campus life, they are also countering stigma and ableism by developing disability pride and community on their campuses.