Pioneering Disability Rights Activist Fought Against Assisted Suicide

Paralyzed from the neck down, confined to a wheelchair, Ed Roberts could move only two fingers. A breathing tube draped from his mouth, Roberts slept in an iron lung.

For many who advocate assisted suicide, the challenges of Roberts’ life made him eligible for ending that life early.  Instead, Roberts lived a life devoted to promoting the rights and abilities of himself and others.

Robert fought to attend the University of California after it said he couldn’t because of his disability, earning his bachelor’s degree, then his masters.

In 1962 Roberts was turned down for employment in California’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation; it told him he was too disabled for a job.

But Roberts kept fighting, and he triumphed. In 1976 Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him Director of the rehab department. As its head Roberts helped establish independent living centers in California and lobbied for disability rights.  

Roberts’ optimism and success made him a leading figure in California’s 1992 election, when voters were asked to approve Proposition 161, a measure that would have allowed doctors to prescribe suicide prescriptions.

Before the 1992 measure went public a poll conducted for the Hemlock Society (now rebranded but still working to legalize doctor-assisted suicide as Compassion and Choices) found public support for assisted suicide.  After a vigorous campaign California voters resoundingly rejected Proposition 16,1 with 54 per cent against and only 46 in favor.  That’s a wide margin in California initiative politics.

The California Medical Association, California Nurses Association, the California State Hospice Association and the American Cancer Society all worked in a coalition opposed the measure.

But Ed Roberts was the compelling public face of the effort.  He symbolized the powerful proof that people with limits in life do have a place in society. He wanted to continue living and having a role in life, which he did until his death in 1995.

In 2010 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill making Jan. 23 Ed Roberts Day in California. State Senator  Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, was Roberts’ former neighbor.

Hancock declared “Ed Roberts was a great example that whatever life hands you, you can be a success. California should be very proud.”

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