Campus archives reveal genesis of U.S. disability rights movement

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

It was 1997, and Jane Rosario, a librarian at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, was on her way to visit Mark O’Brien, a former Berkeley student with an extensive literary collection of his own works. He was a poet and journalist and larger than life — and Rosario had the job of collecting his poems, essays and book reviews to include in the library’s archives on disability rights and the independent living movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Mark was a major star,” said Rosario. “I was really intimidated by him.”

O’Brien, who became paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio at age 6, was admitted to Berkeley in 1978 at almost 30 years old. His father, Walter, had fought for years for his son to be accepted to Berkeley after he read about the campus’s residential program for students with physical disabilities. Funded by the California Department of Rehabilitation, the program set each student up in a dorm room with a full-time attendant during the student’s first year — and footed the bill of $12,000. Although some scoffed at the cost, it was cheaper than living in a hospital, and it offered students something many of them hadn’t had before: a chance to live independently.

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Story by Anne Brice