Google Doodle honors activist Ed Roberts, pioneer of 'independent living' movement

Ed Roberts helped change Americans' perceptions of people with handicaps, helping enable generations of people with disabilities with live more independent lives.

Monday’s Google Doodle celebrated the birthday and legacy of Ed Roberts, a quadriplegic leader whose life's work helped redefine national perceptions of people with disabilities.

Considered the “father” of the disability rights movement, Mr. Roberts changed how schools, employers, and the nation responded to people with disabilities, tirelessly advocating for inclusive infrastructure and policies that have since given opportunities and access to thousands.

"What a black man like Bob Moses had been in the civil rights movement or a woman like Betty Friedan had been for the feminists, Ed Roberts was for the disabled," Michael Lesy wrote in the 1991 book "Rescues: The Lives of Heroes."

From the age of 14, Roberts could only move the muscles in his face and two fingers. He also depended on an iron lung or respirator at night to breathe regularly.

Yet instead of restricting his accomplishments, those limitations served to inspire and motivate him. “He took great pleasure in watching people with disabilities achieve greater acceptance,” his mother, Zona Roberts, said, according to a Google press release. 

In a time when able-bodied people believed they knew best and should dictate the care and scope of the lives of those with perceived disabilities, Roberts became a voice for the community, pushing for equal opportunities and increased handicapped access to public spaces. As a high school student, he was initially denied his diploma, having failed to meet the physical education requirements. Upon appeal, Roberts and his family successfully overturned the school’s decision, granting him an early win against public officials.

In the 1960s, Roberts became the first "severely disabled" student to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied political science and earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. There, he began his first foray into activism and launched the student-run Physically Disabled Students Program, which became a model for his later work with the Center for Independent Living (CIL).

Formally founded in 1972, the CIL sought to bring greater assistance and independence for those living with disabilities, fighting for modifications in cars and vans as well as public transportation that made traveling independently more accessible. The group campaigned to block and remove laws that discouraged those with physical limitations from entering the workforce.

The “independent living” movement championed by Roberts focused on the importance of self-determination and autonomy in decision making, rather than remaining at the mercy of able-bodied people. It emphasized the importance of finding ways to live with one's disabilities, rather than being limited or defined by them. 

Roberts traveled the nation and the world – even swimming with dolphins and rafting, according to Smithsonian magazine – and also married and raised a son, all while navigating the world in a custom-built wheelchair steered by his two fingers. He became head of the California Department of Rehabilitation, and a founder of the World Institute on Disability. 

“My father never settled for anything and always fought for everything,”Roberts’s son, Lee Roberts, said in an interview with The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities. “And he always, always followed his gut, followed his passion, went with it no matter who was against him, and oftentimes there was more people against him than it was for him.”

Today, Roberts’s wheelchair is on display in the National Museum of American History. With a reclining seat, portable ramp, respirator, and a headlight for night time driving, the chair represents Roberts’s innovative thinking and drive to achieve independence – two things that have shaped modern policies and perceptions for those with disabilities.

“Some objects don’t immediately reference a person. With a plate or a tea cup, you don’t have to think about who used it or how that person used it,” Katherine Ott, curator of the museum’s Division of Medicine and Science, told Smithsonian Magazine, noting that Roberts’s wheelchair is a different kind of artifact. “Who used it – and how it was used – is always hanging in the air.”

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