Zona Roberts: ‘grandmother’ of the disability rights movement

Zona Roberts, 96, Berkeley

Why you want to know her: Zona Roberts set the stage for her son Ed Roberts to become the “father” of the disability rights movement by being his first champion. Ed was 14 in 1953 when a bout of polio left him paralyzed from the neck down and in need of regular breathing support from an iron lung. Zona first battled his high school to let him graduate without fulfilling, yes, the PE requirements, then convinced UC Berkeley to accommodate his iron lung in student housing. She also found ways for him to use a wheelchair to attend classes. Her tenaciousness fueled her son’s activism to help severely disabled people live independently. Ed, a 1984 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient who died in 1995, co-founded The Center for Independent Living, which pioneered laws for accessible curbs and ramps. Zona went to Berkeley at age 49 to earn a teaching certificate, and later opened a practice to counsel people on caring for family members with disabilities.

Tenacity at work: “He looked at Ed in his iron lung and said, ‘Ed, you wouldn’t want a cheap diploma, would you?’” Zona said of an administrator who let Ed graduate high school. “It’s a wonder how that man got out of our house in one piece.”

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