Civil Rights

On Monday, we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., and all he did to promote the civil rights of people of color. Yet, there is another person who was born in January that we should also celebrate because he worked throughout his life to promote the civil rights of people with disabilities. The man I am talking about is Ed Roberts. Ed Roberts contracted polio when he was 14. Within earshot, when his mother asked his doctor if Ed would live or die, the doctor told her she should hope that he died because if he didn’t he would be a vegetable.

At first, Ed did want to die and tried to kill himself. But it is hard to succeed at that when you are in a place that is made to save lives. There came a point though, when Ed decided that he wanted to live, and an activist was born. Ed first had to advocate to be allowed to get his high school diploma,  then he had to advocate to be allowed to attend college. Yet, that wasn’t his most important contribution. Ed Roberts helped to start the first Center for Independent Living which has changed the lives of countless people with disabilities.

At the same time that Ed Roberts was fighting for his rights in California, across the country, Judy Heumann was fighting a battle of her own. She was originally denied the right to go to school because since she used a wheelchair and was considered to be a fire hazard. Her mother who was a community activist, in her own right, advocated for her daughter. In the 4th grade, Judy was finally allowed to go to public school. She again had to battle the school system after she graduated from college because she was denied her teaching license since she would be unable to get the students or herself out of the building in the event of a fire. The decision was eventually overturned and she taught school for 3 years. Judy eventually moved to Berkeley and joined Ed as the deputy director of the first Center for Independent Living. She is still advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.

Finally, no discussion of disability activists would be complete without mentioning Justin Dart. Justin Dart also contracted polio and according to him, that was when he really began to live. Justin was an advocate for people with disabilities throughout his life, but his biggest contribution was his work to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed. Justin and his wife, at their own expense, went to every state in the union to see what people with disabilities believed should be in their civil rights law. In 1990, his vision came true as  George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26,.

These are only three of the heroes in the fight for the civil rights of people with disabilities. There are so many more. So, while you think about the contributions of Martin Luther King and others who lead the fight for racial justice, think about those who fought for disability rights as well. After all, where would we be without them?

-Roger F.