The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce



The Ed Roberts Campus, a building to honor the father of the Independent Living Movement, brings together seven agencies for people with disabilities under one roof.

When Ed Roberts, a quadriplegic due to polio, applied to U.C. Berkeley in 1962, one of the deans said, “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” But Roberts persevered with the help of his mother and others at the university, eventually graduating from Cal and going on to earn a master’s degree there. As the first person with severe disabilities to attend U.C. Berkeley, he paved the way for many others. Roberts is known as the father of the Independent Living Movement and Berkeley is known as its birthplace, partly because of his efforts to help people with disabilities live with dignity and independence. [Click here to read more about Ed Roberts]

The Life and Spirit of Ed Roberts (1939 – 1995)

Ed Roberts in an iron lung with a cup and telephone device. Photo courtesy Zona Roberts and Joan Leon. [Click here to read more about Ed Roberts]

A year from now, the Ed Roberts Campus will open in the East Bay. This light-filled, innovative center, where contractors broke ground last September, will offer services and resources for people with disabilities of all kinds, at a single location for the first time. Located near the Ashby BART station, the building is the culmination of 13 years of work by seven partnering agencies that serve the disability community, with support from the Berkeley City Council, to commemorate Roberts, who died in 1995 at age 56.

A hybrid between an office complex and a community center, the 80,000-square-foot project on Adeline at Woolsey, in part of the eastern BART parking lot, will have offices for those collaborating seven agencies. There will be spaces for socializing, community meeting rooms, a child-development center (for kids with disabilities and the children of people with disabilities), a fitness center, computer labs outfitted for people with disabilities, and a cafe.

The curving, stucco building with a striking glass facade and an eye-catching spiral ramp sets a new standard for Universal Design (principles that the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University established in 1997, calling for aesthetically pleasing and accessible designs that everyone can use). Having such a building at BART will make it easier for people with disabilities to visit, as many of them depend on public transit. Moreover, this centrally located building will attract the attention of thousands of passersby, bringing disability out of the shadows.

Although Berkeley is a national model for how to serve people with disabilities, it hasn’t been entirely easy for community members to get their needs met. “I think what has happened up until now is that people stumble onto the services they need—or not,” says Dmitri Belser, president of the Ed Roberts Campus and executive director of one of its agencies, the Center for Accessible Technology.

The agencies serving people with disabilities have been scattered throughout Berkeley and Oakland. For those who use wheelchairs or who have low-to-no vision, it’s no small feat to travel around town to visit various organizations. And although the agencies refer clients to each other, they’ve barely coordinated their efforts until recently, and they’ve had no way of ensuring that clients follow through on referrals.

Belser paints a hypothetical scenario. Say that because of a skateboarding accident, a teenage boy becomes a quadriplegic. His parents realize that when he checks out of the hospital, he’ll be unable to get up the steps to the front door in his wheelchair. They contact the Center for Independent Living for help in building a ramp, and they receive the help they need—as far as the ramp goes. But as Belser says, “They don’t get much more than that.”

By contrast, he says, if the same family comes to the new Ed Roberts Campus, “They end up walking away with far more than they [expected.]” After solving the ramp issue, the people at the Center for Independent Living would recommend visiting the Center for Accessible Technology to create a viable computer setup. If the boy is interested in basketball, he can hook up with adapted sports programs, and his parents can get help advocating for his educational needs—all from agencies located in the same building. Agency employees can ensure that clients act on such suggestions by escorting families down the hall and making introductions. “The exciting thing is that people will be in touch with what they need but don’t know that they need,” says Belser. He adds with a laugh, “I want to give them way more than what they want.”


When Ed Roberts died in 1995, Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean and the City Council brainstormed ways of honoring his memory. The council initially considered a plaque or a statue, but Caleb Dardick, a legislative aide in Dean’s office, said, “Let’s think a little bigger.”

Collaboration was the centerpiece of Roberts’s life. By the time he died, though, most East Bay disability agencies functioned well independently but not together. A building where the nonprofits could join forces came to seem like the most desirable choice.

“As people started thinking about it,” recalls Guy Thomas of San Leandro, who helped plan the new campus, “it was like a tumbleweed. It got bigger and bigger.”

Project organizers encountered considerable obstacles. Before the groundbreaking, BART and the city required the agencies to raise $35.1 million (the cost of construction, though the total project cost $47 million). The architect and the Ed Roberts Campus staff also conducted many meetings with neighbors, scaling back and altering plans after hearing objections.

By the time the building was in construction, all of the involved agencies had grown tight-knit. A synergy is emerging where one didn’t exist before, according to Belser. Working together benefits not only the users but also the agencies, who can eliminate redundant funding requests, share technology, collaborate and focus on their individual specialties (rather than having to do what they don’t do as well).

There’s also more political clout when agencies unite. “What the seven of us have learned is that working together has been way better than we could have thought,” says Belser. “We’re a lot more powerful, we’re a lot more effective, if we work together. We’ve all gotten to do things we never would have gotten to do alone. We have influence we never would have had.”

For example, the Ed Roberts Campus has gained the support of politicians such as Barbara Lee, Tom Bates, Loni Hancock and Barbara Boxer in a way that tiny agencies working alone never could.

Loving access: Ed Roberts shares a laugh with his son. Photo courtesy Zona Roberts and Joan Leon.

Berkeley resident Susan O’Hara sees the building as “an interesting culmination of the many things the disability movement has been doing over the last 40 years.” O’Hara, a wheelchair user, is an expert on the history of the movement. Among other things she helped to establish the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project at U.C. Berkeley. O’Hara doesn’t feel that the Ed Roberts Campus could have come into existence 20 or 25 years ago. Back then, she says, “these organizations didn’t have the proof of longevity that they have now. They’re here to stay. They almost all have budgets of $1 million.”

Now on the board of the Center for Accessible Technology, Thomas says that having helped to plan the Ed Roberts Campus “has been the most gratifying and exciting thing I’ve done in my life.” Thomas has always used a wheelchair because a neuromuscular disease weakened his limbs. He believes he owes everything to Ed Roberts: “When I was born, they didn’t have to give me an education. I didn’t have a right to stay out of the house. There were no curb cuts. There were very few ramps outside hospitals. Even though I had completely average intelligence, I went to special ed only because I was in a wheelchair. Then Ed Roberts came and said, ‘Why can’t I go to school?’” Having that example has made all the difference, says Thomas: “I think there always has to be someone you can look at and say, ‘Wow, well, if he could do that, maybe I could do a little something like that.’”


Iron will: (from top to bottom) Ed Roberts river rafting, with parents and siblings, swimming with dolphins. Photos courtesy Zona Roberts and Joan Leon.

The first thing people will likely notice about the Ed Roberts Campus is the two-story glass facade. “People with disabilities tend to be isolated and hidden away,” says Belser. Even traditional institutions that supply services to people with disabilities often embrace the idea of hiding their clients, and the typically windowless architecture reflects this attitude. By contrast, the minds behind the Ed Roberts Campus wanted an open, airy building. “The idea is to have visibility and really be integrating disability into the community,” says Belser.

This choice isn’t the most obvious one. People may be ashamed of their disabilities, and approaching a disability organization for help can feel excruciatingly difficult. With glass comes a loss of privacy; people walking to BART will be able to see inside. That, says Belser, is precisely the point.

“This building serves folks who spent much of their lives going in the back doors of buildings and feeling like second-class citizens,” says Bill Leddy, whose firm, Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, designed the building. “So we wanted to create a building that had a civic presence,” a building that makes people with disabilities feel proud whenever they go through the front door.

“We’re going to be working and going to be seen working. We’re very excited about a lot of that,” Thomas said. “We wanted people to see us going to work every day, like everybody else, and being productive and being just another aspect of our diverse community.”

As for passersby, Belser hopes they will become more aware of people with disabilities and will take this awareness into other aspects of life. “I think visibility is a huge part of what makes change,” he says.

Shading devices will control heat and glare, but the facade will still admit ample natural light, as will the “oculus,” a circular skylight over the lobby. Natural light is easier on the eyes than artificial light, particularly for people with visual impairments, and creates a cheerful environment.

“The image many have of blind people is mostly of a person selling pencils on the street,” says Belser. “The image of people in wheelchairs is the burned-out Vietnam vet sitting on the street. A lot of homeless, unemployed people getting SSI—that kind of stuff. And I’d like that image to change in people’s minds, to see the wide range of lives that are touched by disability.”

He’s fully aware that people without disabilities, as well as people with newly acquired disabilities, generally struggle to see anything positive in the experience. But Belser, 51, who has macular degeneration and who has gradually lost vision since age 23, says that even if a magic pill could restore his sight, he wouldn’t take it: “I’m used to who I am and the kind of vision I have.” Without his vision difficulties, he says, “I wouldn’t be me. The experience I’ve had being an outsider, living a different kind of life, has helped make me the person I am now. What I’ve gotten from having vision loss is, I think, bigger than what I’ve lost by it.”

Maternal might: Zona Roberts, who fought to help her son, Ed Roberts, attend U.C. Berkeley, holds his photo. Courtesy Zona Roberts.

He also believes his attitude is not unusual: “I think most people who have accepted and embraced their disability don’t feel like there’s anything really missing from them. So they wouldn’t go back. They wouldn’t change.”

There is certainly a time, for anyone who acquires a disability, when they feel like they’ve lost a lot, says Belser.

“But hopefully,” he goes on to say, “they get to the point where they realize, ‘There’s a lot I can do with my life. And maybe my life is going to go on a different path than I thought it was. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different.’”


Many wheelchair ramps are ugly and hidden. Others look like tacked-on concessions to the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a wide-ranging federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates that public and commercial facilities be made accessible). And almost all ramps are solely for wheelchair users, which draws attention to their separateness. If an ambulatory person and a wheelchair user arrive together at the average ramp, they face an “awkward social moment,” says Leddy. It feels more natural for the ambulatory person to take the stairs, which separates the pair.

According to the principles of Universal Design, “separate but equal” facilities aren’t good enough, because separateness is stigmatizing. Instead, an object or space should seem useful to people with a range of abilities.

In the lobby of the Ed Roberts Campus, there will be a spiral ramp so grand, prominent and integral to the building that it has become the logo on Ed Roberts Campus stationery. This ramp to the second floor will circle around the lobby, passing artwork on the walls. Leddy sees the ramp as a “powerful, sculptural” Universal Design feature because wheelchair users and ambulatory people will want to use it together.

The sleek, smooth maple handrails on the ramp also signal a departure from the norm. Most handrails in spaces designed for the disability community are made of cold-looking metal, not warm wood. Belser and his colleagues have asserted all along that they want a building that feels entirely non-institutional. Nevertheless, early in the process, one architect submitted a sketch that reminded Belser of his junior high school. The Ed Roberts Campus founders eventually hired Leddy’s firm instead.

The ramp features vertical guardrails covered with a deep Indian-red resin made from recycled milk cartons. At night, with overhead lights shining, the resin will glow softly, drawing the eye into the building.

These may be subtle points for people without disabilities, who often fail to grasp the bond that unites people with disabilities. It’s not a set of medical problems, as the thinking usually goes. Rather, people with disabilities constitute a community and a culture.

“A lot of people get very isolated, because they can’t get out very much. But when they do get out, it’s nice to have one place that they can go and just be with other people with disabilities,” says Thomas. “We don’t have a natural community. It’s not like we all speak the same language or do the same things. But we all have a connection to a life experience.”

Many people with disabilities also share an interest in policy decisions that can directly affect community members’ independence, such as state budget cuts to attendant care. “We’re trying to protect our community from whatever comes our way,” says Thomas. Visitors to the Ed Roberts Campus can exchange information much more easily than before by chatting in the cafe and in the two-story atrium between the wings of the building.

Occasionally a community member dies, and it has been challenging to find a wheelchair-accessible venue for a memorial service—a large space without fixed seating. When Ed Roberts died, the memorial service took place in the old Harmon Gym on the U.C. Berkeley campus. To accommodate 700 people, including 200 wheelchair users, the organizers had to carpet the gym floor (to protect it from everyday shoes), which was no small undertaking. The Ed Roberts Campus will have large adaptable spaces with movable partitions and few columns.


Leddy knew that designing the Ed Roberts Campus meant going far beyond addressing the pragmatic needs of community members. He tried to understand their perception of the world.

“They engage the world in a completely different way than people without disabilities do.” As part of his research, he spent hours rolling around in a wheelchair.

He became an expert in Universal Design. Whereas the ADA is like a ruler to measure a space to see if it meets regulations about distances and heights, Universal Design is more about the spirit. It prompts architects to keep considering how it will feel to use a building and how to make it inviting to everyone.

Using Universal Design principles, Leddy exceeded ADA requirements by a large margin. For example, the ADA requires that public bathrooms contain a certain number of accessible stalls. The laws also call for grab bars on only one side—any side. But some people need a bar on the left; others benefit from a bar on the right. The Ed Roberts Campus will have both types of stalls, and the stalls will be much bigger than any law mandates.

Many architects grumble about meeting even the bare minimum of ADA requirements. Leddy has a different outlook. Accessible buildings, after all, are something nearly everyone will appreciate as they get older. “At some point,” he says, “we’re all going to need these sorts of environments.”

Leddy’s firm has created as simple a design as possible. A clear, uncomplicated layout helps people know where they are and enables them to locate the information desk and ramp quickly.

Directional cues are an essential part of the design. The talking elevator and the sound of babbling water from an interior fountain will help orient the blind. Changes in floor surfaces will also tell blind people that they’re passing doorways. Around columns, the floor becomes rough—so much so that someone using a cane can detect a difference.

Providing these kinds of cues can be tough when different groups have conflicting needs. For instance, blind people rely on clear, straight edges, whereas wheelchair users often prefer curves and curb cuts. Moreover, blind people rely on tactile surfaces, but wheelchairs glide more easily over smooth surfaces. Carpets need to be hard enough for wheelchairs to roll on but soft enough to absorb sound (thus benefiting the hearing-impaired). Balancing all of these needs can be complicated.

“You can approach this as a big pain or as an interesting puzzle,” Belser says. But ultimately, “You have to acknowledge that you can’t do everything.”

Belser sees the building as embodying not just the progress but also the principles of the Independent Living Movement, because the Ed Roberts Campus involves “people with disabilities doing this by and for themselves. We don’t know of any other place that’s done this.”

Guy Thomas regards the building as standing for ability. “This building is really a token of all the things we can do. All the things that, if you give us a chance, we can do.”

For more information about the Ed Roberts Campus visit

Eve Kushner ( is a freelance writer in Berkeley who frequently writes about architecture and about people striving to realize visions, against all odds. Stone Bridge Press has just released her second book, Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters.

Ed Roberts Campus Agencies

The seven agencies of the Ed Roberts Campus (which all go by acronyms) have the following specialties:

1. Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) is a nonprofit that creates recreational and athletic opportunities for people with disabilities, including basketball, tennis, quad rugby, rafting, bowling, skiing and hiking.

2. Center for Accessible Technology (CforAT), the nation’s first assistive technology center, adapts hardware or software, as well as providing ergonomic set-ups, for people with disabilities.

3. Center for Independent Living (CIL), cofounded by Ed Roberts and formally incorporated in 1972, is the mother of all disability agencies (many East Bay organizations spun off from CIL) and the model for over 400 independent living centers internationally. CIL provides many services, including counseling, sign language interpretation and independent living skills instruction.

4. Computer Technologies Program (CTP) gives people with severe disabilities job opportunities, training many clients in computer programming and setting up internships with local companies.

5. Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) protects disability civil rights and helps set public policy, for example by providing information to Congress about legislation affecting people with disabilities. It also educates people with disabilities, their parents and others about disability civil rights laws and policies, as well as offering legal representation.

6. Through the Looking Glass (TLG) serves families in which either a parent or a child has a disability, and offers in-home intervention services, such as family therapy.

7. World Institute on Disability (WID), a public policy center cofounded by Ed Roberts, conducts research and educates the public about disability issues, including personal assistance services and employment issues.

Faces of the East Bay