Disabled Rights Activist Honored by Google
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Google Doodle, the image on the opening page for Google searches, shows a man using a wheelchair and breathing machine at the front of a classroom. The man is Edward Verne Roberts, an early activist for disability rights in the United States.
Birth of an activist
When he was 14 years old, Roberts became ill with polio and was paralyzed from the neck down. He had to sleep in an iron lung at night and rested in it during the day.
Breathing on his own was not easy: he had to gulp air using his mouth and throat muscles.
Roberts went to high school by telephone until his fourth year, when his mother asked the school to let him come in person. Other students stared at him, but he decided it was because he was like a "star" – different from the other students.
At first, the high school said he could not graduate because he did not take the classes in physical education or driving a car. Roberts’ career as an activist began when he fought for the right to graduate without those classes.
Roberts was the first severely disabled student to attend the University of California at Berkeley.
That was not easy, either.
School administrators thought Roberts would never be able to get a job, so he had no reason to attend the university. He also had to fight for a living space where he could use his iron lung.
Eventually, part of the university's hospital was opened to him. Soon other disabled students were able to move into the space and attend classes.
Roberts earned a Bachelor's Degree from Berkeley in 1964 and a Master's Degree in Political Science in 1966.
The MLK of the disability rights movement
Roberts and the other disabled students at Berkeley formed a support group. They called it the Rolling Quads. “Quads” is a shortened word for “quadriplegic,” a person who has paralysis in both arms and both legs.
The people around them were surprised that the Rolling Quads had a positive view of being disabled. The group’s positive message and successes led to more activism for the disability rights movement in the wider community.
Roberts was an early leader of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley and is seen as the father of the Independent Living movement. It is an international movement of people with disabilities. They are working for equal opportunities, self-determination, and self-respect.
In 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Roberts as Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. This agency had once said Roberts was too disabled to work. He worked there until 1983.
Roberts died of a heart attack in 1995 at age 56. His wheelchair is in the Smithsonian Museum. It was donated by his friend Mike Boyd, who called Roberts "the Martin Luther King Jr. of the disability rights movement."
I'm Jill Robbins.
Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
You can hear Ed Roberts in this YouTube video.