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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Berkeley disability activists sparked a national movement

Anthony Tusler
Section 504 protesters gathered at UN Plaza in San Francisco to protest government indifference and to insist that Section 504 regulations be signed.

This story first aired on April 5, 2017, it aired again July 26, 2021 and most recently in the February 29, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

March is the first day of National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Bay Area activists were part of a movement that made a difference all over the country.

Ever wonder what that building is connected to the Ashby BART station in South Berkeley?

Go up the connected ramp and you’ll enter the Ed Roberts campus. There are extra-wide elevators and big buttons at the base of the elevator to select your floor. The campus is spacious with lots of natural light, every bit designed for people with disabilities.

“Disability is the disconnect between people’s abilities and the built-environment,” says Campus President Dmitri Belser.“I think a lot of it has to do with architecture.”

The Ed Roberts campus was constructed using something called universal design. Rounds of design charrettes were held to talk about everything from oven construction to all the ways a bathroom could accommodate people with different needs.

Credit Truc Nguyen
The Ed Roberts Campus at UC Berkeley

So who was Ed Roberts?

Roberts was born in San Mateo. When he contracted polio as a teenager, it left him quadriplegic. During this time, “most people with his kind of disabilities ended up institutionalized,” says Belser. But Roberts wanted more. When he applied to UC Berkeley, he was denied admission due to his disability. With the support of his family, Roberts fought back and became the first person with a significant disability to attend the University.

At the time, the dorms weren’t accessible, so Roberts lived in Cowell Hall, the school’s hospital. Soon, Roberts was joined by others. Although isolated from some of their peers, the students formed a bond with each other while living at Cowell. Eventually a coalition of quadriplegic students emerged and dubbed themselves “The Rolling Quads”.

A radical movement foments

It was the late 60’s, a time when students began to feel they had rights and a voice. The Rolling Quads and many in the disability community wanted to it known that they were not patients, but an oppressed minority.

From lowering countertops and telephones to widening bathroom doors, the Rolling Quads opened up the campus to people in wheelchairs, making UC Berkeley one of the most accessible in the country. Beyond structural changes, Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads started the independent living movement.

“It was a very radical concept,” says Belser. “How can somebody who can’t dress themselves, bathe themselves or feed themselves...how can that person live independently?”

The Center for Independent Living was the first of its kind back in 1972. It was a place where people could go to find housing, jobs, and get advice from people with similar challenges. There are now 403 centers across the country.

Belser lost his vision in his 20’s and says, “I can tell you as a blind person, if I had been born in the 1920’s, my life would have been very different. I probably would have been in some sort of sheltered workshop. Or I would have been on relief, on disability, on SS my entire life.”

Instead, Belser says he’s had a whole career because of the work done by people like Ed Roberts.

Many contributed to this civil rights movement and 40 years ago today, many of them gathered across the United States, demanding equal access to public spaces and public life.

'An army of cripples'

The movement that started in Berkeley and the push for independence in the 60’s led to a national battle for civil rights in the 70’s. In 1974, The Rehabilitation Act was passed by Congress to benefit veterans returning home from Vietnam with a disability. But one section — section 504 — affected the larger community.

“It was the first time civil rights language had been applied to disability and that’s where it’s significant,” says Catherine Kudlick, historian and Director of the Paul K Longmore Institute on Disability.

Section 504 aimed to give access to public buildings like the DMV, post office or hospitals, a first in US history.

Both the Nixon and Ford administrations refused to sign Section 504. When President Carter took office January of 1977, people were hopeful. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano said he would sign it but by April of 1977, people refused to wait any longer.

Inspired by black civil rights pioneers, the disability community came together to demand inclusion and freedom.

News outlets called them an army of cripples. This army--the deaf, blind, people in wheelchairs, with canes, gathered and occupied ten federal offices across the US, starting on April 5th.

After just a few days, the occupations in DC and the rest of the nation fizzled. In San Francisco though, over 150 people vowed not to leave the building until Section 504 received a signature.

The sit-in at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare offices continued for nearly a month.

“The Bay Area already had a culture of collaboration in place,” says Kudlick. The San Francisco occupation was able to go on with the help of several iconic organizations.

Dennis Billups thinks back to that time and remembers the Black Panthers bringing him and other demonstrators supplies like bandages and food. “We’re talking about beans and rice and chicken. Turkey. Ham,” Billups says.

Credit Truc Nguyen
Dennis Billups, one of the original demonstrators who fought to get Section 504 signed

Billups made his rounds in the building each day, singing and “keeping the vibration up.” There was a lot of sitting around and waiting, so the 24 year-old Billups was appointed chief morale officer. His main qualification was that “nobody had a bigger mouth than I did.”

Singing songs became an important part of his day. Born blind, Billups got to know people with different disabilities and found that together, the protestors could take care of one another.

There was a moment during the occupation when the hot water was shut off along with the phone lines. Anyone who left the building wasn’t allowed back in.  The occupiers had no way to send messages, so deaf people stood at the windows and used sign language to communicate to people below on the street. They signed grocery lists, medical requests and details about what was going on inside. Interpreters outside would read the signs and get information out to the media.

“We were their ears and they were our hands and feet,” says Billups. It was a cooperation of empowerment that was so strong, so powerful and fearless!”

After the nearly month-long occupation, Secretary Califano signed Section 504. People with disabilities now had a legal right to accessible public buildings and education, as well as the right to federal employment, housing and healthcare.

Outside the building, At San Francisco’s Civic Center, activist and organizer Kitty Cone spoke to a jubilant crowd. “We the hidden, supposedly the frail and the weak can wage a struggle at the highest level of government and win!” She shouted.

A community anyone could join

Kudlick says getting section 504 signed laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which banned discrimination in all areas of public life.

“We’re making an investment in our society when we have something like the Americans with Disabilities Act,” says Kudlick. He points out that one unique thing about the disability community is that anyone can join at any time.

“You can have a disease, a car accident. Just a random thing that happens to you, and you could need all of these accommodations and benefits. And if you get older, you’re gonna need all of it anyway,” says Kudlick.

Today, one in five Americans has a disability; some you can see, some you can’t. Kudlick says that just because the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA exists, doesn’t mean discrimination and segregation, intentional or otherwise, doesn’t happen.

“The way a society treats its most vulnerable citizens, is really an indication of the worth of that society, and if you basically toss out groups because they’re not powerful or not important or not worth it...it’s just morally wrong,” Kudlick says. Additionally, “You’re just missing out on some people who really have amazing insights and amazing things to contribute to society.”

There are still a lot of barriers for people with disabilities. Not all businesses comply with the ADA. If you have a disability, you’re more likely to be unemployed. More likely to live in poverty. Civil rights language written into law is an important foundation, says Kudlick, but it takes more than that to wrestle with stigma and the built environment.

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