Ed Roberts: A Pioneer for Equality


January 23, 2020 | by Emma Olson

January 23 is Ed Roberts Day

Every January 23rd we celebrate Ed Roberts Day to honor the man frequently called the father of the Independent Living movement.


Ashley Eisenmenger

Disability Inclusion Training Specialist


At the age of 14, Ed Roberts contracted Polio, along with both his parents and all his siblings. They eventually recovered, but Ed was left with significant respiratory, muscle, and limb weakness and atrophy. As a result, he slept in an iron lung (a breathing machine used prior to the development of our modern ventilators) and had to teach himself different breathing techniques in order to function away from his iron lung during the day.

Ed Roberts is responsible for opening the nation’s first center for independent living.  It started with a staff of just two people. “We know that even the most severely disabled folks can live in the community, and it’s up to us – those of us who are lucky enough to be out and who feel the power of the process. Because every time we reach out to help someone else we empower them for ourselves,” he said.

Raised in a family of labor activists, Ed was a natural leader perfectly poised to advocate for people with disabilities. He sued the state of California to be admitted to college and successfully convinced the university to accept more students with disabilities. When more disabled students started to arrive on campus, they joined with Ed to establish the Rolling Quads as well as the first disability-led student organization in the United States. They provided disability services, such as transportation and wheelchair repair, and advocated for greater physical access to their campus, including taking sledgehammers to curbs in order to create curb cuts. Ed was heavily involved in the 504 sit-ins. He helped create the World Institute on Disability. His wheelchair is on display at the Smithsonian.

Roberts also has important roots in Access Living’s history. When He was consulted long before the creation of Access Living on what a center for independent living should look like in Chicago.  Roberts was honored at Access Living’s Annual Meeting in 1988.

Today, Ed Roberts’ legacy lives on in a variety of ways including on college campuses across the country where students are pushing initiatives, discovering identity as students with disability, and working to create more inclusive and integrative environments.

Some of these initiatives look like:

  • A Stanford University student group that created a disability community center on campus
  • University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign pioneered inclusive and elite wheelchair athletics at the collegiate level and beyond
  • West Chester University’s creation of the Ram Initiative for students with intellectual disabilities

Thousands of students with disabilities attend college all over the country today.  Social and educational initiatives such as these are taking place nationwide. Some are student lead, other are student driven, but all exist because one man decided that access and education were his right and he fought to get them.

The disability community as a whole takes this day to remember a man who was a catalyst for disability rights, access, and equality. Because of the work he did, inclusion is prioritized, access is a requirement, and people with disabilities are developing stronger and louder voices every day.