Ed Roberts, first severely disabled student admitted to UC Berkeley

This is the time of the year to celebrate Ed Roberts’s birthday. Ed was admitted to UC Berkeley after one of the faculty members said, “We tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” Schoolwork wasn’t a struggle, but keeping up with everything else was a struggle. When you are disabled you can slide back downhill into the pit of homelessness within a month.


Polio paralyzed him from the neck down. His lung muscles were paralyzed. He had to sleep in an 800-lb iron lung at night. It breathed for him.

Against all odds, he was a stellar student and was admitted to UC Berkeley in 1958.

Roberts graduated in 1962, two years before the Free Speech Movement transformed Berkeley into a hotbed of student protest. When his search for housing met resistance in part because of the 800-pound iron lung that he slept in at night, the director of the campus health service offered him a room in an empty wing of the Cowell Hospital.

Roberts accepted on the condition that the area where he lived be treated as dormitory space, not a medical facility. His admission broke the ice for other students with severe disabilities, who joined him over the next few years at what evolved into the Cowell Residence Program.

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