The Center for Independent Living will recognize UC Berkeley architecture and city planning professor Raymond Lifchez tomorrow (Jan. 23) with the second annual Ed Roberts Award, which recognizes and honors individual contributions to the success of CIL and the independent living/disability rights movement.
Lifchez began teaching design at Berkeley in 1970, and two years later started developing what became a groundbreaking study course for undergraduates in which they incorporated accessibility into all their designs. They were guided by people with disabilities — some of them students — who served as mock clients.
He and co-instructor Barbara Winslow authored Design for Independent Living: The Environment and Physically Disabled People (1979), describing their classroom experience and introduction of disability into architecture education. The book was a a finalist for the 1980 National Book Award, in current interest category for non-fiction.
Lifchez’s writings on accessible design and the social history of architecture include Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People (1987), which explores incorporating the needs and challenges of the disabled into architecture education.
A commitment to attention and caring
In Rethinking Architecture, Lifchez recounted his growing appreciation of the need for participation by the disabled community in the design process.
“Whereas my earlier professional contact with disabled people had always been channeled through a state agency, in Berkeley I found myself directly involved with the politically and socially active disabled community,” he wrote. “In the few small projects I assisted with, I was overwhelmed by the difference between my earlier experience of having been told by able-bodied administrators about disabled people and now hearing these people speak about themselves, about their experiences, needs and preferences.”
The more he talked to physically disabled people, Lifchez said, “the more I realized that a change in society’s values and attitudes was the indispensable prerequisite to a barrier-free environment. Barrier-free advocates were not asking society to turn the environment into one giant appliance, filled with ramps and grab bars, but rather were asking communities to make a serious commitment to attention and caring.”
Mechanical features added to architectural designs, wrote Lifchez, are not concessions to special or minority communities. Instead, they are symbols of humanity, useful features and aids for constituencies ranging from those with long-term or permanent disabilities to children and pregnant women, the elderly, someone lugging a heavy load for a specific chore or those temporarily disabled by a skiing mishap or a job-related injury.
In 1988, Lifchez founded the Berkeley Prize, an international essay competition for undergraduate architecture students to explore design’s role in social, cultural and psychological life.
Ed Roberts’ legacy
Ed Roberts, who had contracted polio at the age of 14, was the first severely disabled student accepted at UC Berkeley. He went on to become an activist and leader of the independent living movement.
Roberts became the executive director of the Center for Independent Living in 1974, and in 1976 was appointed director of California’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. He received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, which he used to help establish the Berkeley-based World Institute on Disability.
He remained an influential advocate for people with disabilities until his death in 1995, and his influence lives on. The CIL awards program is part of a statewide Ed Roberts Day, which has been observed every January 23 since 2010.
An online collection of interviews with Roberts and other disability rights and independent living movement leaders, participants and observers, along with documents, photographs and audio and video clips is available through the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center.
On campus, the Disabled Students Program serves disabled students with specialists, professional development counselors and accessibility experts who work with faculty, administrators and staff to ensure a more accessible learning environment.
Berkeley also offers a Disability Studies minor, for which several architecture courses are offered as electives. They include an introductory course on the Americans with Disabilities Act and universal design; the ADA, universal design and construction materials; and ADA non-compliance issues. The College of Environmental Design also offers a landscape architecture course on the social and psychological factors of open space design.
The maker world also has opened its doors to disability research, as seen with the campus’s EnableTech, a project-based organization that designs and builds assistive technology for people with disabilities.
“Good courses and good teachers are important,” Lifchez wrote in Rethinking Architecture, “but more important are good professional schools, schools whose curriculums and policies embody a coherent set of values that speak not only to their students but to society at large…
“In this, we were fortunate to find ourselves in Berkeley, a city that has become a mecca for physically disabled people seeking ‘independent lives,’ and to work with a department of architecture that has earned a reputation for its concern with social issues.”
Joining Lifchez as a featured speaker at CIL’s Ed Roberts Day event will be Lowell Bergman, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter.
To watch a Center for Independent Living video about Roberts and this year’s awards program, click here.