A King for the disabled


AS A DISABLED black woman, I'm careful when selecting heroes, looking for people I feel a kinship to.

Martin Luther King Jr., of course, is one of my heroes. However, I only recently claimed a hero who was essentially the Martin Luther King of disabled people: Edward Roberts.

Ed Roberts, who died last month at 56, first started speaking out for the rights of the disabled as a college student in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s. The movement would grow to become a national one, the consequences of which are still being felt today.

Because of the movement, the federal government has encouraged wheelchair accessibilty, sometimes by witholding money to local governments if certain requirements are not met. As a result, today we have such amenities as curb cuts, wheelchair-accessible public transportation and rest rooms, elevators or ramps where there were only stairs before, as well as many other things that help the disabled maintain active lives.

Despite being disabled, Ed Roberts was filled with dreams. He was almost totally paralyzed from his neck down as the result of polio when he was 14. He used a respirator to breathe. But he lived independently, and he had an active lifestyle that included traveling internationally.

He knew there were many disabled people who wanted to be independent too. Roberts wanted them to get on with their lives by going to college, getting jobs -- whatever their dreams were. He dreamed of liberating those who were trapped in their homes, unable to navigate in a society that had barriers to wheelchairs.

He broke down barriers that had been up for many years. He led a movement that resulted in 400 independent living centers around the nation.

It has been nearly 11 years since I was left disabled by a car accident. It wasn't until I was forced to look at life from a wheelchair that I truly realized the difficulties of the disabled. I was pleased to learn that I could live independently; I didn't know at the time that I had Ed Roberts to thank for that fact.

In 1984 I had a chance to see what my life would have been like without the accessibility that the disabled enjoy today. That year I spent two weeks in Venezuela on a church-sponsored missionary trip. It was my first foreign excursion and my first trip since my disability.

Once there, I immediately noticed how the people of Caracas appeared to be amused and amazed by the sight of me in a wheelchair. Pedestrians and drivers would stop, gape, point and stare at me.

Children would run up to my chair, touch it, laugh and run away. After several of these incidents, I asked my interpreter what was going on. He explained that people with disabilities there generally are confined to their homes; they can't afford wheelchairs, and even if they could, it would be too difficult to get around since most facilities are not wheelchair accessible. I felt so sad for the people there and for the first time I felt ashamed to have a disability.

Caracas sits in a valley; homes line nearly every moutainside. When I looked up into the mountains, I thought of all of the disabled who never left their homes for any reason, not even to get medical attention.

Caracas doesn't have the curb cuts, ramps and elevators that I've come to rely on in this country. So I was carried, pulled, lifted in the subway, restaurants, stores, etc.

I came to realize that as a disabled person I was fortunate to live at a time when many of the physical barriers were gone. I was free to live independently.

What would my life be like if not for activists like Ed Roberts? He dedicated his life to the independence and equal rights of all persons with disabilities.

Each time I come up against a barrier -- physical, emotional, psychological -- I am reminded of what advocates like Roberts have accomplished for me. I know too that the work of breaking barriers down must continue. I hope to help continue Roberts' work.

Janice Jackson writes from Baltimore.

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