Chapter 16. Working the System
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303 16 Working the System Sit -ins and demonstrations were one aspect of the growing movement but were by no means the only tools available to disability rights advocates. Some attained positions of relative power within the social services and rehabilitation systems that had such an enormous impact on the day-today lives of people with disabilities and sought to use their growing influence to empower their constituents. Perhaps the most notable example of such an advocate/administrator was Ed Roberts, who in 1962 had been deemed “infeasible ” as a client by the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and in 1975 was appointed director of that agency by Governor Jerry Brown. James Donald, also on the West Coast, and Elmer Bartels in the East are two further examples of this “outsider/insider” development. Like Roberts, who found a sympathetic ally in the unorthodox Jerry Brown Jr., Bartels worked for Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who in the early 1970s had cut his political teeth as a “good government” reformer. Dukakis, like Jerry Brown Jr., was willing to take the then-radical step of choosing a person with a disability to head his state’s rehabilitation commission.1 James Donald “You can change public morality with the law.” As a Cowell Hospital resident at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967, James Donald witnessed not only the very beginnings of the independent living movement but also the tumult and violence that marked much of campus life during the mid-1960s. “Riots were so frequent there, I used to carry a gas mask on my [wheel]chair just so I could sit and watch them.” Neither his stance as a “noncombatant” nor his disability protected him from the violence, however. He remembers one incident: “I was at the steps at the Student Union, watching 304 chapter 16 the riot on a cold day. The students were across the street and the police were sweeping the campus. There’s five or six steps there that fade down into Bancroft [Street]. There were about three or four of these blue jumpsuited cops without badges, with gas masks and other masks on, and gloves, and clubs. They came up to me from behind and said, through their gas masks, ‘Get off campus.’ Basically, they were motioning toward the steps, toward Bancroft, for me to go. “I had my hands in my pockets, and I started to laugh at them. I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And one of them whacked me on the back of my head, me just sitting in an electric chair. And another one grabbed my chair. I was doubled over by then. I couldn’t get up. The other one pushed my chair, and he was just about two feet from the edge of the steps, going full speed, and I looked up and I saw this student storming the cops. The cops let go of my chair, ran, and about five or six students surrounded me and carried me down.” Donald was a Cowell resident for only a brief time before moving off campus , but he kept in touch with Ed Roberts and John Hessler as they organized the Physically Disabled Students’ Program, and then the Berkeley CIL. He was also, during his two years at Berkeley, a member of the Rolling Quads. After finishing law school at the University of California at Davis, he served in the California attorney general’s office for two and a half years before being appointed deputy director of the state’s Department of Rehabilitation under Governor Jerry Brown. His boss at this new job was an old friend: Ed Roberts. Together, they made fundamental changes in California’s rehab programs and drafted major revisions in state law. James Donald died February 24, 2003. Jerry Brown was the kid governor who had all these new ideas. Disability was becoming a huge issue. And so I applied to the governor to become the director of rehab. And then I called Ed [Roberts] and said, “Ed, I want your support. I want to be the director of rehab.” And he goes, “That’s funny. I’ve applied for it, too.” And then he says, “Well, if you get it, you appoint me deputy director; and if I get it, I’ll appoint you.” So that was the deal. Then, of course, Ed got it because he had all the political clout and he was the better person anyway. And so when he got it...


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Subject Headings

  • United States. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • People with disabilities -- Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
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