BERKELEY -- A man called the father of the disability civil rights movement and a current federal advisor on international disability rights shared something special Wednesday -- a peace award, and a sense of accomplishment.

The Berkeley Rotary Club issued its annual Rotary Peace Grove Award to U.S. State Department disability advisor Judith Heumann and the late Ed Roberts, both of whom empowered and led fights for the disabled community.

Nearly 200 crowded into the Ed Roberts Campus on Ashby Avenue, named in honor of the disability champion who received one of the two awards.

The awards ceremony served as an emotional affirmation of what's been achieved in the area of disabled civil rights over several decades.

Zona Roberts, mother of the late disability rights champion Ed Roberts, with federal international disability rights adviser Judith Heumann (right) at
Zona Roberts, mother of the late disability rights champion Ed Roberts, with federal international disability rights adviser Judith Heumann (right) at Wednesday's Berkeley Rotary Club Peace Grove Award ceremony. Heumann and Ed Roberts each received an award. (Photo by Sarah Rohrs)

Many in the audience maneuvered with wheelchairs, or used white canes. Several hearing-impaired participants took part through American Sign Language interpreters.

In the mid-1970s, both Roberts and Heumann launched the independent living movement, which involved battles for better treatment, legislation and equal access to education, employment and education.

"This is not something we could have ever done by ourselves," Heumann said before receiving her plaque.

"This is an amazing room of people," she said, looking out over a small sea of disabled rights advocates and other supporters. "We have much to be proud of."

Previous Peace Grove honorees include Bishop Desmond Tutu, Doctors Without Borders, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.


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The Rotary Club of Berkeley Peace Grove consists of more than 100 trees in Tilden Regional Park with plaques along their bases.

Maxim Schrogin, chairman of the Rotary chapter's Peace Committee, said Heumann and Roberts promote peace by giving voice and fighting for the rights of disenfranchised people.

Heumann has fought to do just that since the early 1970s, when she battled to become the first person in a wheelchair to teach in a New York City public school. She's had polio since she was 18 months old.

As an international leader in the field of disability rights, Heumann now travels extensively to Vietnam, China and other countries to meet with embassy leaders, and civic and religious officials.

President Barack Obama created her position as special advisor for international disability rights at the U.S. Department of State in 2010. She said one key goal is to assure that the voice of the disabled community is at the table when human rights are discussed.

Currently living in Washington, D.C., Heumann returned to Berkeley to accept the award and use her time here to talk about her current work with disability rights advocates.

"This is a great vibrant site with lots of activities," she said of the Ed Roberts Campus.

Advances in disability rights, access and treatment in housing, education and employment have improved in other countries, Heumann said.

Some 147 countries have ratified the Disabilities Treaty based on the United States' American Disabilities Act.

She said at least 15 percent of the world's population is disabled with an estimated 80 percent living in developing countries. Many, she added, are disabled as a result of wars, and a high percentage of those in sex trafficking are disabled.

Heumann has had a long career as a community activist, organizing rallies and protests as a young woman, founding the organization Disabled in Action, serving on federal committees, and writing legislation.

She also served in the Clinton administration, and as the World Bank Group's first advisor on disability and development.

The "poorest of the poor" the world over are those with disabilities, Heumann said.

She noted that the tragedy is not with the disabilities themselves but with how people and society, as a whole, react to them and refuse to remove barriers -- a comment that drew loud applause.

"We want the same opportunities as everybody else," she added.

Accepting the award on behalf of her son, Zona Roberts of Berkeley said she was "quite thrilled, delighted and happy" to be present.

Roberts said her son, who was 56 when he died in 1995, struggled with his disability after contracting polio at age 14. He became paralyzed from the neck down except for use of one finger and a few toes.

He slept in an iron lung and despaired over his future before choosing to make something of his life, she said.

As such, she said, he chose not view his disability as a source of victimization, but rather as a condition to empower himself and improve conditions for others.

The fight for better health care, support and other services at UC Berkeley and through the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation eventually led him to fight for better community services.

His work fueled creation of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, considered a pioneering institution in independent living services and advocacy programs run by and for people with disabilities.

In 1976, then Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Roberts as director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. Later, he co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Heumann and fellow activist Joan Leon who also spoke at Wednesday's event.

Roberts often described himself as an artichoke -- prickly on the outside but with a big heart on the inside, Heumann recalled.

Heumann, who served as the CIL's director from 1976-81, said she was proud to be accepting the Peace Grove Award alongside her long-time friend and fellow activist.

"Ed was a dynamic leader. He was an articulate person and he helped people see what was possible," she said.