Remembering Hale Zukas, daring visionary of the disability rights movement

By Joan Leon and Pam Mendelsohn: For Complete Post, Click Here…

Wry, tenacious and determined, Zukas designed Berkeley’s first curb cuts, brought wheelchair-accessible buttons to BART elevators and engineered accessibility improvements around the globe.

Image: Hale Zukas with Nina Sprecher, his dear friend and attendant for 42 years. Credit: Lydia Gans

Hale Zukas, who helped to redefine accessibility for people with disabilities, died of heart failure on Nov. 30 in Berkeley. He was 79 years old.

He was born with cerebral palsy, which significantly impaired his mobility and speech. Zukas’ mother was advised to put him in an institution. Instead, his parents facilitated a full, productive life for him.

Zukas traveled through life in a motorized wheelchair. He used a pointer attached to his helmet to operate his wheelchair and to spell words on a word/letter board. Most people could not understand his speech. He frequently addressed government officials and other groups with a co-worker or personal assistant who translated his speech and supplemented it with reading from his letter/word board.

Graduating with honors from UC Berkeley, where he majored in mathematics and minored in Russian, Zukas began his life work as an advocate for needed services and the elimination of architectural and transportation barriers in communities locally and nationally. In 1970, he effectively lobbied for California’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) Program, the first consumer-directed program to provide attendants in the home to people who needed them. This program has since become partially Medicaid-funded and a model for the nation. 

In 1973, when there were protests for the ratification of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, Zukas was one of the leaders of the movement. He participated in the 20-day sit-in at the federal building in San Francisco and was one of the activists from the Bay Area who successfully lobbied the Carter Administration to release its regulations.

An engineer at heart, Zukas designed the first curb cuts in Berkeley and convinced the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to become fully accessible. He co-founded the BART’s accessibility advisory group in 1975 and even designed the buttons for inside BART elevators so that they could easily be reached by wheelchair users.

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