Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ed Roberts: American Hero

Ed Roberts attended community college, then got an undergraduate degree at Cal-Berkeley, then a graduate degree from Cal; he also began a PhD at Cal but he never finished. He was, at first glance, a fairly unassuming man... but there was something in his eyes that made you pay attention. I had the divine privilege of meeting Ed a few times in my days at Berkeley; I would often see him around town, just being Ed.

The reason I implore you to remember Ed Roberts is because his simple desire to get a Berkeley education was the beginning of a revolution: Ed survived the last American polio outbreak before Doctor Jonas Salk proved that angels still take human form and help God heal His children. I could write at length about the profound lessons of Dr Salk's life, and why the fact he never won a Nobel Prize is incomprehensible to me, but this post is about Ed Roberts.

We take it for granted in the early years of the second decade of this century that people with physical disabilities, even profoundly life-altering disabilities like post-polio paralysis, deserve equal access to educational opportunities and a chance to participate in society on their own terms. But, lest we forget, the Americans With Disabilities Act has only been in effect since 1990; the concept of people with disabilities as being full people, deserving of accommodation rather than institutionalization, and the recognition of disability as a distinct social identity with its own narrative, language, and self-sovereignty... these things did not really exist until the latter 20th century.

Ed Roberts began his studies at Berkeley in 1962; he moved to Berkeley with an iron-lung in tow and refused to be marginalized by "living" in a hospital ward. The bravery such an act must have taken is truly mind-boggling. A hero is not a super-being per se: a hero is, just as often, an ordinary person who drops into extraordinary circumstances and who dares to survive. Ed Roberts was a hero.

Ed died in 1995, and for many years the community worked on a fitting tribute. In April 2011, the Ed Roberts Campus opened its doors to the public. It is a beautiful facility; I finally got a chance to see it with my own eyes today, and in a word, the place is remarkable. From the enormously oversized elevator buttons mounted near the floor, to the security-card readers over 1-foot square, to specially designed curb-cuts positioned to provide safe access from the side-ramp of a wheelchair transport van, and even special harnesses in the bathrooms which lift people out of their wheelchairs and safely place them on the toilet... remarkable. Truly remarkable.

I think Ed would approve. Thank you, brave sir. Your memory lives on.

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