Ed Roberts, Activist
We Won't Go Away Part 1
Featuring Ed Roberts. Produced in Great Britain in 1981 by Patricia Ingram with narration by Rosalie Wilkins
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: If you are a disabled visitor to America, and especially if you get to California, Berkeley is the place where you will feel immediately at ease. People don't stare or deliberately not stare. You're just taken for granted, and you soon begin to realize why Berkeley has been called the crips capital of the world. Berkeley's always been known as a place where movements for social change have begun, but in the more conservative and relaxed atmosphere of the 1980s, it's hard to remember the scenes of violent confrontation which were typical in the'60s when students on the Berkeley campus were rioting against the Vietnam War and campaigning for the rights of minorities.
It was in that atmosphere of protest that disabled people began to realize that they, too, were a minority which would have to fight for its civil rights, and so a movement was born. Today, wheelchairs are a commonplace sight on the campus, but 20 years ago, it was very different. So what was it like to be a disabled student at Berkeley in the early '60s?
Rosalie Wilkins: Well, to start with, you'd have been living in a hospital unit, treated as a medical problem and, apart from going to your classes, that's where you would have stayed. There was no possibility for taking part in ordinary student life. But as the radical movement flowered, a group of these severely disabled students decided to break out and they called themselves The Rolling Quads.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: The leader of the Rolling Quads was Ed Roberts, paralyzed by polio when he was 14.
Ed Roberts: I was the only disabled student on the campus. It was very weird, I was stared at all the time. It was very clear that they didn't want me there. In the beginning, they were afraid I might die or something serious might happen to me. Once we convinced the university that I could go there, they couldn't reject me because of… I had high grades but we couldn't find a place to live, and we finally found a student health center that I could live in. And I was very much, you know, a bullet student academic and doing well until I began to realize how difficult it was for me to get around the campus and some of the awful attitudes there were on the part of professors. And I think because they started with me and I was very severely disabled and had an iron lung, they were willing to take anybody after that.
All right – a breakthrough. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: For Ed, each bad experience was a further spur to his determination not to be restricted by his disability, and before long, he was to be joined by other disabled students with the same ambitions.
Ed Roberts: Within three or four years, there were about 12 of us. We really began to feel that we were fighting for our own independence and that there was a future for us out in the community. But we had to think really through how to do it. How were we going to make ourselves free?
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: At about the same time, across the country in Chicago, Eunice Fiorito, blinded at 16, realized that she, too, had a fight on her hands if she wanted an equal chance in life. Eunice was to become the first president of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities
Eunice Fiorito: I was a bouncy kid who liked life, and I was concerned about how I was going to live that life. But on the other hand, I was very much certain that I was, and I was going to master it
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Today, Eunice Fiorito is an advisor on disability in the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.
Eunice Fiorito: I finished college in about three years. I say that to you only because it was my vocational counselor's position that, in fact, I wasn't ever going to get through college and I was going to, if you will, be out of school and not have a degree within three years. And so I was very delighted when in three years I could walk to his office and say, "I have this degree and you were wrong." That began to make me aware of how people with disabilities were going to be treated by society. And then I tried to get a job as a teacher in the state of Illinois. And one must consider that this is now back 20 years or better ago. And the state of Illinois said, "No, you can't teach. You are blind. You can't handle children and how will they react to you anyhow?" That was the next piece, and I started to hunt for a job and I couldn't get a job. That then brought to me an awareness of the unfairness, the way people were being discriminated against.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Judy Heumann was in the forefront of the rights movement in New York in the'60s. She's now Deputy Director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, begun by Ed Roberts and now a model for similar centers across America.
Judy Heumann: CIL is an organization which is run by persons with various kinds of disabilities – physical disabilities, blindness, deafness, persons with mental retardation. We have a long history of wanting to not only provide direct services for people but also to be able to begin to influence policymakers so that they could understand more clearly those policy barriers which prohibit us from being integrated within the community.
For myself personally I became really actively involved in the movement after I had been through a struggle of getting education and continuing to have this image of the American Dream - if I worked hard at school and if I really studied and if I did everything that I was told to do, I would be able to go out and then get a job, and I would be able to be, you know, be Miss Middle Class America living in suburbia if I wished to do that. But in reality what happened was every step of the way was a real struggle. And even once I had gotten through university and gotten my degree to teach, I was then discriminated against specifically because of my disability. So at some point within me, I had to acknowledge the fact that no matter how hard I worked, I was still not viewed as an equal person, and if I could accept not being viewed as an equal person, then I could kind of slide away into the background, but I couldn't accept that for myself.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: What did you do about it?
Judy Heumann: Well I… I began working a lot with other disabled people. I had for a number of years been friends with disabled people, but we hadn't been as political as we became. And what happened over the last 10 years in this country is that disabled people have begun to band much more closely together to form what I would define as the movement.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Ralf Hotchkiss, who designs wheelchairs, and his wife Debbie Kaplan, a civil rights lawyer, became involved in the Disability Movement in Washington in the early '70s.
Ralf Hotchkiss: When I first became disabled, now 15 years ago, I got involved right away in the technology of disability. I was a bicycle maker and I… and I almost had to fix my wheelchair first weekend out, but I didn't get involved in politics for another five years afterwards. Then I was working for Ralph Nader in auto safety and all these disabled people started writing him letters, and he asked me to find out what was going on. I did. I met Judy Heumann, who you must have talked to by now, and got involved in some of the early demonstrations, setting them up in Washington, D.C.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Can you tell me about those early demonstrations? What part did you both take?
Ralf Hotchkiss: Debbie wasn't disabled yet.
Debbie Kaplan: I was just becoming disabled at that point in California. I was at…a year out of college. I had a diving accident and broke my neck, and found myself in the world of disabled people. But I remember the first thing I wanted to do when I was in the rehabilitation hospital was to find out from other disabled people what the world was really like for people with disabilities. How people functioned on the outside. What it was that made some people have independent lifestyles. And the hospital really didn't do much to provide that. And one of the groups that came to visit us was a group of the people who originated the Center for Independent Living called the Rolling Quads, and it was through people like that who were strong role models for me in my identity as a person with a disability that really got me involved.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: The movement had now begun to coalesce as disabled people all over America decided that they had to take action and demand access to buildings and transport and education. They wanted jobs, housing, and adequate funding and services to get them out of institutions. They wanted the equal opportunity which they believed was their right under the American Constitution and a fighting chance to prove themselves as useful members of society.
Ed Roberts: I started in the Civil Rights Movement. I started working with Black and Chicano civil rights, and somehow in the middle of that, when things were going very well, I stopped and said, "What am I doing here? I've learned all these great organizing skills and I should be working with my own people."
And that was the transition. We realized we could do it ourselves, that we needed some support, that we needed to make the social systems like the welfare system that paid for our attendants and basic support. That had to work for us, not against us. So we had to… that way we had to get involved with the state legislature to change the rules and regulations, and to change the laws so that it promoted independence rather than maintenance and dependence
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: In 1975, Ed Roberts became Director of California's Department of Rehabilitation, serving over 100,000 disabled people.
Ed Roberts: One of the conditions that I took, that, you know, the Director of Rehabilitation, was that I would have the freedom to be the advocate and to be out front on issues that even the governor and the administration may not agree with me on, but that I had to have that freedom to be the out-front advocate in this movement. And that I couldn't be limited by some archaic notion of what it means to be a director of a large agency.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Ed's department has a budget of 150 million dollars and a staff of over 2000. Over the years, the concept of rehabilitation has changed from finding jobs for physically handicapped people to a positive policy of nondiscrimination aimed at integration for all handicapped people. That policy was enshrined in the Rehabilitation Act introduced during the Nixon administration in 1972.
Eunice Fiorito: The Rehabilitation Act was a most progressive piece of legislation when reviewed at the time and would have opened many doors for our independence. The administration in 1972, however, I believe, and so did many other disabled people believe, that this administration felt that the piece of legislation that was then being proposed, which then included programs of independent living, what they called advocacy, client advocacy programs for people to exercise their right to get what they felt that they were justly deserving of in order to be functional citizens, were much too progressive, and President Nixon at that time vetoed the bill. We then felt, and I think we were ready to realize that we had to take command of our own lives and become political.
Judy Heumann: When the Rehab Act was vetoed by President Nixon, it was done, oh, about a week and a few days before the '72 elections with Nixon and McGovern, and a group of us from Disabled in Action and a number of other organizations decided that we wanted to do something publicly about it. So we organized within, oh, not many days a demonstration which started out in Manhattan at what was called the Federal Building. We had never been there before and we took like, I don't know, 60 or 80 people up to this Federal Building. And when we got up there, it was like in the middle of no place. It was on this little island, and we had this demonstration and we had these great flyers and we had this symbolic funeral of disabled people being killed by the Nixon administration. And the next thing we knew, out came these city police. They drove up in this car. They asked who the leader was and people sent them over to me. And the guy said to me, "Do you know that you're trespassing on federal property?" And I said, "Yes," and he said, "Are you going to leave?" And I said, "No," and we expected the world to end, and he said, "So stay," and he turned around and he walked away.
So we decided we weren't making the impact that we wanted to, so we were going to sit down in the street and we were going to stop traffic. So we did. We all went out into the… Most of us went out into the street. But, as I said, there were like hardly any cars coming by. So we all got into our vans and into the cars, and there we traipsed off to Madison Avenue, which in Manhattan is like…it's a huge street. And we got out of the cars and we decided that what we were going to do is we were going to sit down in the street. So at 4:30 in the afternoon we formed this huge circle. We cut off four streets, but that was too scary because there were only 60 or 80 of us and there were huge trucks and cars. I mean, you know, Manhattan is like a crazy city in the best of times. And so we decided that we would retreat, we would only go onto one street, but still we shut the whole city down. They were announcing, "Paraplegics stop traffic in Manhattan," and the police went and got a representative from Nixon headquarters and they wanted to know what we wanted. We said we wanted a public debate with the president on national TV to debate why he had vetoed the Rehab Act. The guy thought we were totally crazy. He just walked away going, "You're crazy, you're crazy."
Ralf Hotchkiss: That was one of the biggest was when Nixon did veto the Rehab Act. On one of the snowiest days in Washington's history, many people, over a hundred, I believe, came down from New York City in buses and basically stormed the capital, visited all their congressmen and all the all the congressmen who had voted against it and built up enough support so that I believe that was the strongest congressional override in history, override of a presidential veto.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Finally, on September the 23rd, 1973, Nixon signed. The Rehabilitation Act was now law, but there was yet another hurdle to be overcome.
Eunice Fiorito: In this country, when a law is passed, there must be followed, then, regulations, which really explain the law and set forth the actual policy and the practices of how that policy is going to be interpreted. Well, that did not come about, particularly within Section 504.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Section 504 states, "No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely by reason of his handicap be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Eunice Fiorito: It was 1975 and there were no regulations. And we proceeded then to come into 1976, and there were still no regulations and, therefore, the law was not being implemented.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: January 1977, a new president in the White House, but instead of new hope, yet more frustration as Jimmy Carter's administration delayed the regulations yet again.
Eunice Fiorito: Within two days after the new Carter administration was put into place, about 15 of us came to see then Secretary Califano, stating the issue about the regulations not having been issued and expressing our concern and desire to work with him and his staff to get them out within a reasonable period of time, particularly since they had been circulated, people had studied them, they had commented, etc., etc.
That process then started all over again. The administration decided they wanted to review them and they wanted to study them, and we went back and forth to meeting after meeting after meeting in good faith. And we finally said to them, "Look, we have had enough. From a legal point of view, these regulations seem to have been quite good. You've studied them a lot and we've studied them. If you cannot come up with a decision, we must then take action." And we gave them until the 4th of April. And on the 4th of April of 1977, they did not have the regulations ready for issuance. And so we had developed an alternate plan, and that plan was to bring our plight to the attention of the people of this country.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: The key part of the plan was to take over federal government office buildings across the USA, and in the full spotlight of press and TV attention, Judy Heumann expressed the deeply felt frustration of the disabled minority.
Judy Heumann: The harassment, the lack of equity that has been provided for disabled individuals that now is even being discussed by the administration is so intolerable that I can't quite put it into words. I can tell you that every time you raise issues of separate but equal, the outrage of disabled individuals across this country is going to continue. It is going to be ignited. There will be more takeovers of buildings until finally, maybe, you begin to understand our position. We will no longer allow the government to opp… oppress disabled individuals. We want the law enforced. We want no more segregation. We will accept no more discussion of segregation. And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don't think you understand what we are talking about.