History of the Disabled Students' Program and Residence Program

Ed Roberts

In 1962, Ed Roberts wanted to attend UC Berkeley. Like most Cal students, he was bright and ambitious, but in one respect he was not a "stock model." He'd had polio when he was fourteen. Now he used a wheelchair by day and respirator by night. Meetings were held among Dean of Students Arleigh Williams, Director of Student Health Services Dr. Henry Bruyn, Ed's mother Zona Roberts, and Ed himself. This led to Ed's having a room, not in the residence halls, but in the on-campus health facility, Cowell Hospital.

John Hessler

Newspaper accounts of Roberts' admission at Cal caught the attention of a physical therapist at Contra Costa Hospital. She showed them to a twenty-two year old patient, John Hessler. John had broken his neck six years earlier in a diving accident and expected to live out his life in the hospital. Instead, he applied for academic admission at Cal and, in 1963, became the second student to move into Cowell.

Cowell Hospital

By the end of the 1960's, a dozen students lived in the third-floor wing of Cowell Hospital. They found and hired people to do personal care (to be known as "attendants"), discovered a largely unused law which entitled disabled individuals money to pay for their personal care (now known as "In-Home Support Services"), and bought motorized wheelchairs. Registered nurse Eleanor Smith, (and later Edna Brean), served as liaison, assistant, and resource for students. Part-time orderlies helped with meals and back-up personal care.

Off-Campus Apartments

By 1969, the first adventurous students moved from the hospital to apartments on the south side of the Berkeley campus. This was a revolutionary step away from the conventional idea that disabled individuals needed to be sheltered and protected by medical professionals.

The Disabled Students' Union

Like other groups in the 1960's, the students organized themselves to better deal with bureaucracies and to voice their concerns. The "Rolling Quads" was formed in 1969 (renamed the "Disabled Students' Union" in 1973). They proposed the formal establishment of services for the disabled students at Cal.

The Physically Disabled Students' Program

In 1970, the students received a grant of $80,000 from the Federal Department of Education. The Physically Disabled Students' Program was established in a office behind the eatery Top Dog at 2532 Durant Avenue. Its first Director was John Hessler. Hessler hired three counselors: Mike Fuss, Zona Roberts, and Chuck Grimes. In those days, everyone at the office was a "generalist." They did whatever was needed, inventing if necessary, as they went along. Mike was the Assistant Director, Chuck was largely in charge of wheelchair maintenance, and Zona worked on the essential services of housing and attendant care.

The California Department of Rehabilitation

In 1975 the California Department of Rehabilitation established a contract with the University. Renewed annually, it covers a full-time Coordinator of the Residence Program as well as Special Assistants, who help students enhance their independent living skills. That year, Ed Roberts was appointed Director of the California Department of Rehabilitation by Governor Jerry Brown. Roberts named Hessler his Deputy in Sacramento. Donald Lorence, another of the 60's Cowell residents, was named Director of the Physically Disabled Students' Program.

Additional Services

Support for deaf and hard-of-hearing students was added to the original services for students with visual and mobility impairment.

The Residence Program

Also in 1975, Susan O'Hara became Coordinator of the Residence Program. Recognizing the needless stigma attached to students housed in a campus hospital, the University moved the Residence Program to the Unit II residence halls. It is now housed in the fully accessible Unit I residence halls, two blocks closer to campus.

For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Residence Program in 1987, a survey was taken of 157 former Residence Program participants. It found the average salary of those employed to be $32,224. Career fields include law, architecture, psychotherapy, counseling, management, programming, systems analysis, market management, accounting, travel, education, real estate, writing, and drama.

The Disabled Students' Program

"Physically" was dropped from the Physically Disabled Students' Program's name in 1982, in recognition of the services provided for students with learning disabilities. In 1988, Susan O'Hara became Director of the Disabled Students' Program, and Bill Blanchard succeeded her as Coordinator of the Residence Program. Susan retired in 1992 and Lynn Bailiff became the Disabled Students' Program's Director. Lynn Retired in 1997 and Ed Rogers became DSP's manager in 1998.


The Disabled Students' Program employs thirty staff members and serves approximently 850 students, up from more than 360 in 1985-86.

The spirit of the Residence Program assumes that a disability does not deter a person from making the decisions that control one's life. Herb Willsmore (Cowell Program, 1969) typifies the feelings of others when he says:

The magic of close social contact with others who were coping with and overcoming a disability helped me learn and create successful techniques and tools for independence. My mind was opened and challenged to new possibilities for life and work because of the examples lived out by the other students in the Program and the encouragement we were to each other. Thefriendship and affection shared among the disabled students in the Program and those that helped us was the key to making me feel like a new person again. Some lifelong bonds were established which gave us all a new set of roots beyond family. All this, coupled with the intellectual and cultural environment of the University, made my stay in the Residence Program the second most important experience in my life.

From one student's desire for higher learning, the Residence Program has grown into an internationally recognized model, having hosted hundreds of visitors from other universities and countries. They visit to observe, learn, and copy its success.

Last updated: September, 2011