Memorial planned Sunday for Susan O’Hara, disability rights leader

Susan O’Hara, a leader in the independent living and disability rights movement, died earlier this month in her Berkeley home in. She was 80 years old.

Born in La Grange, Ill., O’Hara was a high school teacher of French and U.S. history. In 1974 she moved to Berkeley, and, for a short time, she taught at Oakland’s Holy Names High School.

Disabiity rights leader Susan O'Hara with an unidentified woman in 1987.

Susan O’Hara, left, with an unidentified woman outside the offices of the Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley in 1987.

The following year, O’Hara became the coordinator of the Disabled Students Residence Program at UC Berkeley. Previously housed in a campus hospital, students with disabilities were moved to the Unit II residence halls.

Having contracted polio as a child, O’Hara used a wheelchair. Through her life experience and insights, she helped students with disabilities — including some who used iron lungs — make the transition from home to school. O’Hara also worked with families and parents to help them understand why living independently was an essential piece for people with disabilities to achieve their hopes and dreams.

“Susan transformed the lives of disabled students here for decades — and the social landscape in which we live. What I’ll remember about Susan is not only that she helped weave those safety nets and did these galvanic things but also how she did them,” said English professor Sue Schweik.

“In her oral history, a major history project we owe partly to her, Susan talks first about the culture of her childhood family: ‘…  (W)e had a practical way of looking at things. If something needed to be done, you didn’t spend a long time discussing it. You just went ahead and did it in a straightforward way.’ Susan brought these qualities to us here in abundance, and she used them to make profound change happen for generations of students and for us all. That’s her legacy to us: rights, care, empowerment, access, justice. All our lives depend on it. Straightforward, Susan,” Schweik continued.

In 1988, O’Hara was named director of the Disabled Students’ Program. After retiring in 1992, she helped establish and build a collection of oral histories of the people involved in founding and sustaining the disability rights and independent living movement and also worked to preserve historical disability resources archived at the Bancroft Library.

“Without Susan O’Hara’s brilliant leadership, the important history of the disability rights movement would be lost,’’ said Corbett Joan O’Toole, co-founder of Reclamation Press: Wisdom from Disability Communities and author of Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History. “Her dedication to building the disability rights and independent living movement oral history collection creates a critical source for future students and scholars. With her guidance, over 100 interviews provide a diverse fabric of disability history.”

As an expert on supporting students with significant disabilities in higher education, American and international institutions often sought out O’Hara as a consultant.

A Celebration of Life is planned from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, July 29, at the Ed Roberts campus, 3075 Adeline Street, Berkeley. A small service also will be held at Notre Dame in Paris next spring. Notes of remembrance can be left on the website chapelofthechimes.com.

At the Berkeley memorial, an ASL interpreter and CART will be provided. If you have questions or require additional information, please contact Mary Lou Breslin at mlbreslin@gmail.com.