Know Your Disability History: Ed Roberts and the Founding of the PDSP

Ed Roberts and the Founding of the PDSP

By 1967 there were 12 disabled students attending UCB and living in Cowel, the university’s health center.  Ed Roberts, who was the pioneer who first got the dorm set up, had graduated undergrad and was now working on his masters degree.  The Rolling Quads, as the students called themselves, used their nights in Cowel to strategize ways to break down barriers they faced.  From inaccessible classrooms to the lack of curb-cuts around town, there was no shortage of things to discuss. They borrowed strategies from other minorities, and talked about how those tactics and protests could be used by them.

Cowel Becomes A Program

The following year, in 1968, the dormitory became an official program, run by the Department of Rehabilitation.  With the new legitimacy, however, came more red tape. The counselor who was assigned to the dorm tried to evict two students, citing poor grades.  Roberts said that the counselor wanted them all to take a certain number of hours and get straight A’s. This, the Rolling Quads argued, was unfair given that the other students were not held to this standard.  Some of the men in Cowel were unable to uphold this standard because of health reasons, while others didn’t want to rush out of the communal living they had gained. Still, the counselor threatened to cut the program off if they didn’t comply.  To justify this, she branded them with the label “infeasible” to work. The Rolling Quads put what they had discussed into practice, and went to local news outlets with their issue. With the press being involved, along with student outrage as word got out, the counselor resigned a few weeks later.

Lead, Not Follow

The threat of their education being taken away by bureaucracy got the group thinking.  They decided that they wanted to be in charge, rather than be directed by someone who just viewed them as a number.  They determined that, in the past, their rehab counselors only viewed them as a number. The only reason the counselors cared about their clients’ success was so they could keep their jobs.  Late night discussions began to focus on self-sufficiency. No longer would they rely on a third party to decide if they were able to do something.  

All Roads Lead To Victory

In 1969, the city began renovating the main shopping area to the south of campus.  This renovation, however, lacked certain accessibility features such as curb cuts, which were not standard yet.  Because of this, the Rolling Quads didn’t leave campus often. A 5-inch curb cut is too high for a wheelchair to ride over.  In a form of protest, eight members of the Rolling Quads went to a city council meeting. The eight wheelchairs was a dramatic statement, to say the least, but effective.  They won a $50,000/year budget to ramp the streets, a small but vital political victory and sense of power.

Moving Off Campus

About that same time, the idea of living in the same building — the health center of UCB — began to wear on some of the Rolling Quads.  Living in the hospital only further stigmatized them, being both patients and students. They had originally wanted a similar setup off-campus, all living together, but the idea of independent living meant that that wouldn’t be a necessity.  It wasn’t feasible to live together their entire lives. So, the Rolling Quads put their heads together and formed a support group to help each other live independently, applying for grants for funding.

The Founding of the PDSP

Jean Wirth, who was Roberts’ Counselor at San Mateo, had a program to help decrease the drop-out rate of black and hispanic minorities.  The program offered ridesharing, help finding jobs, and peer mentoring among other services. This program worked so extremely well, that she was asked to go to DC to instate a national program.  In 1966, Wirth asked Robers to help make provisions that included people with disabilities as a minority. The two made sure to specify that these programs were to be run by people with disabilities whenever possible.  This stipulation ensured the Rolling Quads would get their grant proposal for what would become the Physically Disabled Student Program, or PDSP, with a fully-ramped office on campus.

The PDSP’s Impact On Indepence And Advocacy

The PDSP drew from experience on what was needed to live on campus independently.  They hired disabled counselors to look for accessible off-campus housing. They created a pool of Personal Care Attendants for those that needed help with tasks — an easy thing to do on such a diverse and populated campus.  Perhaps most spectacularly, though, was wheelchair maintenance. At that time, motorized wheelchairs were not made to be driven all day every day, out in all kinds of environments. They broke often, and could keep students from attending class.  PDSP set up a 24-hour repair center, staffed by self-taught “wheelchair wizards” who soon began designing better, tougher chairs. They also began tinkering with van modifications, allowing more and more people the ability to drive. Finally, the PDSP had an advocacy department, which helped students navigate the red tape that came with acquiring certain services and funding.  The PDSP united different disability groups together. In the beginning, the department only helped the physically disabled, but quickly expanded to the Deaf/HoH community, as well as the blind and certain mental disabilities.

The PDSP’s Impact On Thinking

The PDSP rejected the medical model of disability in favor of measuring how much control the disabled person had over their own life.  Rather than focusing on what someone couldn’t do, they focused on what was needed to make independence possible. Under this new way of thinking, disabled people know more about their own disability than doctors, and know what they need to fully live life.  

Driven And Inspired

John Hessler, UCB’s second quadrapelegic to enroll, had gone to France to study.  Roberts wrote him a letter, asking him to head the new program. He moved back to Berkely, buying a modified van he could drive himself.  The fact that Hessler, a quadrapelegic, could drive, was so impressive to Roberts that he would use the van as a recruitment tactic.

Paving The Way

There were other universities at the time with disability programs, but none run by disabled people.  Roberts and UCB had really started something special.

Know Your Disability History: Ed Roberts and the Founding of the PDSP

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