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The origins of independent living

By David Pfeiffer

The independent living movement did not originate with Ed Roberts. Before his death, Ed expressed that thought to me himself. Still, Ed contributed an idea which made the independent living movement thrive -- and made it unique.

Ted Nugent at the University of Illinois actually began the independent living movement. Soon after the end of World War II, around 1946, he had dormitories at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana made accessible for mobility-impaired veterans. Non-veterans were later welcomed. Nugent also developed accessible campus transportation and classroom assistance. But Nugent's independent living center was a residential one: All the crips lived there, and personal assistants came to the dorms to provide whatever was necessary. Today such a residential center is considered segregation -- and rightly so.

Ed's understanding that segregated housing was counterproductive made the independent living movement come alive.

In 1973, a year after the Berkeley Center for Independent Living was started by Ed Roberts and others, the Boston Center for Independent Living was founded at Boston University. Like the one at the University of Illinois, the Boston Center was also residential segregation. It only lasted for a few years; it was eventually reborn as a non-residential center.

Ed's genius lay in refusing to provide segregated living centers. The Berkeley Center provided the services which people with mobility impairments (and later persons with other disabilities) could use to live independently in the community in their own homes.

Non-disabled persons depend on garages with auto mechanics to fix their cars, gas stations to sell gasoline, automatic car-wash services to keep a car looking nice, yard service companies to mow the grass and rake leaves, snow shoveling and plowing services (in places other than Berkeley!), public transportation, and fire and police protection in order to continue to live independently.

Both disabled and non-disabled people rely on malls for various products, grocery stores for food, pharmacies for medicines and other things, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians for repairs. Independent living, as Ed knew, meant having a wide range of services available in order to live independently.

Ed's understanding that segregated housing was counterproductive made the independent living movement come alive This was Ed's contribution to independent living -- and it should be remembered as one of his finest achievements.

David Pfeiffer is Resident Scholar at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and editor of Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ).

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