Doug Brown and Gene Turitz, founders of Center for Independent Living’s Van Modification Shop, carrying the CIL banner at the Disabled Peoples’ Civil Rights Day March and Rally in San Francisco, Oct. 20, 1979. Credit: Ken Stein

“The ‘solution’ for most of us, if we hadn’t been fairly strong people and in a place like Berkeley, is that we would have been warehoused away in some institution,” Edward V. Roberts, a quadriplegic, told The Berkeley Daily Gazette in 1974. “Our society isn’t given to helping blind and disabled people to be more independent.”

Roberts, who in 1962 had been the first severely disabled student to attend UC Berkeley, was executive director of the newly formed Center for Independent Living in Berkeley. 

This year the center celebrates its 50th anniversary as the birthplace of the modern independent living movement, which championed the right of people with disabilities to lead independent lives. 

“Our mission is to offer services and advocacy for people with disabilities to live independently in the community and away from institutions,” said Ted Jackson, who took the helm as the CIL’s executive director in March. “We do that by providing everything from skills and travel training to advocacy and working to change policy — anything that helps a disabled person be independent.”

A CIL staff member works with a consumer to design a foot bolster to help her feet reach the footplate of the wheelchair. Credit: Jesse Rosenberg

CIL helped make Berkeley a mecca for disabled persons and led to groundbreaking changes in laws and attitudes concerning the disabled community. Among the CIL’s most noteworthy accomplishments: the implementation of a curb cut program in Berkeley in the early 1970s, the first such program in the country, which began as a guerrilla operation in the 1960s.

CIL also broke ground by having a peer counseling program so people with disabilities could assist those with the same challenges. CIL’s peer-based services have inspired the creation of some 400 such centers in the U.S. and 20 nations around the globe.

In his 1995 New York Times obituary, Roberts was called “a champion of the disabled.” Roberts, who contracted polio when he was 14, was paralyzed from the neck down and relied on a respirator during the day and an iron lung at night. His entry into the university paved the way for dozens of other severely disabled students who followed. Together with other disabled students, including Hale Zukas and Jan McEwan Brown, Roberts led a movement that made the university’s entire academic and social life accessible to all, according to CIL’s website. 

Roberts helped create the first disabled students group, the UC Berkeley Physically Disabled Students Program (now called the Disabled Students Program), which “started to attract people in the community who also needed such services,” mostly wheelchair repair and aid referrals, said Joan Leon, 84, a CIL board member and former employee who spent her career in the disability rights movement, starting at CIL in 1973. In 1972, those Berkeley disabled students and community members joined forces to create the CIL. 

Although Roberts was not included in CIL’s incorporation papers (by that time he had a master’s degree in political science and was teaching at California State University Northridge), he returned to Berkeley to take the helm of the fledgling organization as its executive director in 1974. A year later, CIL hosted the first national conference on independent living.

In 1976, pressed by CIL and other activists, the city of Berkeley installed its first official “curb cut” at a Telegraph Avenue intersection that would become, according to one Berkeley activist, “the slab of concrete heard ’round the world.”

A year later, as chronicled in the 2020 film Crip Camp, CIL organized a 26-day sit-in at the San Francisco offices of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which led to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects “qualified individuals” from employment discrimination, as long as “reasonable accommodations” allow the employee to perform the essential functions of a job. 

Ed Roberts and Phil Draper, a founder of the Center for Independent Living who became an executive director after Roberts, at the 10th anniversary Celebration of the 504 Demonstration at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, April 1987. Credit: Ken Stein

Section 504 paved the way for the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, a more comprehensive civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. According to CIL’s website, the organization organized the West Coast testimony in support of the ADA.

CIL has operated out of several locations, from its ad-hoc, student-run beginnings on Haste Street to 2054 University Ave. in 1974 and a year later to its longtime offices at 2539 Telegraph Ave. 

“When I started working at CIL in 1974, there were 12 people in a small office on University Avenue,” said Ken Stein, 74, a lifelong disability rights advocate who worked as CIL’s first public information coordinator from 1974 to 1982 and later at CIL’s Disability Law Resource Center. “When I left 8 years later, there were 30 departments, over 100 employees and a million dollar annual budget.”

In 2010, CIL moved into the new Ed Roberts campus at 3075 Adeline St., along with several disability groups that spun off CIL and state and local disability offices. For the convenience of its clients, who often use public transportation, the universal access building is across from a major transit hub, the Ashby BART station. CIL has had a Fruitvale office for many years, too, in various locations. 

In a typical year, CIL serves about 1,000 people, which dropped to half as many during the pandemic. Many clients could not make it into the office for in-person visits or did not have access to technology “to meet with us virtually,” Jackson said. This year, however, clients are returning in greater numbers. 

“In the final analysis, what our community did was something utterly phenomenal,” said Stein. “What it did was to ultimately transform literally millions of lives and centuries-old attitudes, not only in this country, but throughout the world — from people being viewed as objects of charity and rehabilitation to people worthy of self-determination.”

Center for Independent Living, 3075 Adeline St., Suite 100, Berkeley. Phone: 510-841-4776. Video Phone for the Deaf: 510-356-2662. Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Connect via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.