The Emergence of the Disabled Civil Rights Movement

I'm here today to encourage you. You are the emerging leaders of the disabled civil rights movement and I want to urge you to take risks. One of the great values in learning to take risks is that you discover that you have many more options that you ever thought possible. I can't count the times I've been told that I'm unrealistic. I've learned that it is a fundamental mistake to let other people define what's realistic and what's not.

When I got polio, the doctors told my parents that I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life. Now I tell people I'm an artichoke: a big heart and prickly on the outside.

As members of the disabled civil rights movement we must together work to insure that our universities are responsive. We must make sure that there are no service gaps which would inhibit our right to an education. We must make sur that our universities hire persons with disabilities at all levels. We must make sure that our universities has and instills a positive attitude toward disability. We must make sure that universities respect and foster our rights.

One of our major responsibilities is toward children with disabilities. We must work vigorously to ensure that the federal and state laws which guarantee an integrated education to children with disabilities are strictly enforced. We must recognize our obligation to serve as role models for children with disabilities. We must encourage students with disabilities to enter the teachin profession. A young child could have no better role model that a teacher with a disability.

When I was at U.C. Berkeley in the '60's, I and almost every other student on campus became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. We were fighting for the basic rights of black people. But, during my involvement in that movement, I suddenly realized something that has since been extremely important to me —that I'm part of a minority that is as segregated and devalued as any in America's history. I am part of the disabled minority.

I quickly found that other disabled students shared my feelings. We all felt a sense of anger, frustration, and isolation. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that we needed to organize if we were to create our own Civil Rights movement.

These early years of organizing were filled with mistakes and confusion, but they were exhilirating and taught me invaluable lessons.

The first task was to clearly define our objectives. We had to translate our anger, frustration and isolation into a set of needs, which in turn would be translated into a bill of rights for disabled persons.

Over a period of years, we literally transformed the U.C. campus and the City of Berkeley. We changed the architecture and we changed attitudes.

The University must have thought that we were insatiable: we demanded curb cuts, ramps, interpreters, readers and on and on. We held meetings, we demonstrated, we leafleted. After a while, the University realized that our interest and theirs did not clash.

Our struggle for equality had its humerous side. One fall, we decided to go to the Cal football game. We wheeled up to the stadium and asked the gate-keeper the cost of a seat. When he told us, we wheeled on in telling him that we had brought our own seats.

We soon realized that our struggle could not be confined to the campus. The City of Berkeley offered a myriad attractions to us but it was virtually closed off because of architectural barriers. We had to develop new skills and strategies to deal with elected officials, to gain the curb ramps and other changes that have made Berkeley one of the most accessible cities in the nation.

As I mentioned above, my experiences in Berkeley taught me a number of invaluable lessons. One of our most critical strategic decisions was to join forces with persons with other types of disabilities. None of us wanted this to be simply a wheelchair crusade. We enlisted the support of deaf students, blind students, and students with epilepsy and others. We quickly learned the value and strength of coalition politics. As the years went by, our struggle moved from city to county to state to national politics.

We found that we also had many common issues with the elderly and began to form coalitions. We knew that institutionalization made no sense either for a disabled or elderly person. We knew that the medical model based on illness made no sense. We knew we had to move toward models based on human potential.

We also learned the value of publicizing our struggle. We found that the media was willing, sometimes even anxious, to give us coverage. Media coverage often tended to enhance our bargaining position with administrators and politicians.

Most importantly we learned to take risks. I am constantly amazed by the fact that most people are not willing to take risks. When I was in college, I decided I wanted a power chair so I could be alone with my girlfriend. The doctors told me it was impossible but my motivation kept me going. At first, I had difficulty operating the chair but I learned, and in the process gained a great deal of freedom.

A few years ago, the federal government was on the verge of adopting a set of regulations which would have seriously undermined the rights which we had thought we won when Congress passed Section 504. The odds on altering this decision, which was made the highest levels, seemed overwhelming but we knew that together we could beat the odds. A group of persons with disabilities occupied the Federal Building in San Francisco. There was national media coverage of their stay in the building daily. A local Congressman held a Congressional Hearing in the occupied building. A delegation was sent to Washington to demonstrate at the White House and to lobby Congress. Finally, after a month-long occupation, the decision was reversed and the 504 regulations now stand as a Bill of Rights for persons with disabilities in this country. It showed we were tough, principled and willing to fight attitudes.

We also have an obligation to work with the parents of children with disabilities. We must show them by the example of our own lives that their children have a bright future. We must help organize the parents of children with disabilities. We must make sure that they understand that their children have a right to an integrated education.

We must also begin to struggle with the concept of prevention. I believe that the concept has been badly distorted. Our society operates on the basis of rewarding the disability and illness industries. I believe that we must work for a different concept of prevention, one that is based on "wellness". We need programs that provide "wellness" including nutrition, safe and human environments, full employment, creative community and work experiences, national health service, quality infant/maternal and child development and protection systems.

In the coming years we must strengthen our political muscle. We will be facing critical fights at the state and national levels. The American Public Transit Association and bus manufacturers, for example, are seeking to undermine our right to accessible public transportation by claiming that it is not cost-effective to equip buses with lifts or ramps. We know this is nonsense but we will have to make sure that we tell the public.

We have made remarkable progress in terms of political development and sophistication. We cannot, however, be complacent. We must work out the differences which still separate disability groups. We need not give up our own special interests when we work together in common causes. We must make sure that our organizations respond to the needs of their members. We have to continue to build coalitions.

But most importantly, we need your commitment and leadership in the future.

About this text
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley, Calif., 94720-6000;
Title: From Edward V. Roberts Papers: Speech: The Emergence of the Disabled Civil Rights Movement
By:  Roberts, Edward V.
Date: May 19, 1980 (issued)
Contributing Institution: The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley, Calif., 94720-6000;
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