Hale Zukas needed speed. At Berkeley, accompanied by his fast wheelchair and trademark helmet, Zukas swooped down Telegraph his avenue at a sprinter’s pace, his mop of gray hair fluttering in the wind.
Zukas, who was born with cerebral palsy, had a place to speak and speak out to policy makers about building an accessible Bay Area for all. His righteous disposition and keen wit made them listen, even though his language and motor skills were severely impaired.
Zukas gave several lengthy interviews in his 1998 Oral History. He used a cane attached to his helmet to communicate by pointing to the letters on the wordboard. “At least I know what I’m talking about better than anyone else.”
Zukas died on November 30 at the age of 79, but not before his civil rights work for people with disabilities shaped the way millions of people move through the public spaces of this country. was.
“People knew you were listening when Hale was talking. ‘He really had a bigger vision.'”
The influence of Zukas can be felt throughout the Bay Area, from public transportation to sidewalks.
He designed Berkeley’s first generation wheelchair ramp as Berkeley became an early model for mobility access in the 1970s. Known as “curve cuts,” these ramps transformed local sidewalks from miniature cliff gauntlets into wheelchair-accessible walkways. His advocacy also helped make BART the nation’s first fully accessible transportation system for people with disabilities.
Among the long list of accessibility improvements Zukas mentions is BART’s elevator, which lowers buttons based on his input.
Zukas’ work is rooted in 1960s Berkeley. As protesters rallied against the Vietnam War and demanded free speech, a burgeoning contingent of quadriplegic students also took advantage of the city’s unique countercultural environment. Zukas co-founded the Center for Independent Living in 1972, under the philosophy that people with disabilities need to speak for themselves on issues of advocacy and life choices. His CIL in Berkeley played a pivotal role in changing the urban landscape and changing cultural assumptions, and since then he has spawned over 400 centers across the United States.
At CIL, Zukas was arguably the organizational guru at the heart of accessibility policy. He was also adept at bending bureaucracy to his will.
Memories of Zukas, told by peers and fellow activists, are often colored by his iconoclastic approach. Human affectionately called Zukas an “old fart” due to his stubbornness and sarcastic humor. Wheelchair designer Ralph Hotchkiss described him as a “wild man” thrilled with speeding chair lunges. Kitty Corn, another of his prominent activists who died in 2015, also praised him as an “unsung hero” whose enormous influence was often overlooked due to his speech impediment. Did.
Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Zukas credits his mother with driving his education in the face of medical facilities that insisted he should be institutionalized. “Ultimately, she decided she knew more than doctors,” said Zukas, who majored in math and studied Russian at the University of California, Berkeley.
Zukas remained at Berkeley after graduating in 1971. He was there in his 1977 when activists staged a landmark sit-in at the Federal Building in San Francisco, setting the stage for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under President Jimmy Carter’s appointment, Zukas also served as Vice Chairman of the Federal Commission that developed federal accessibility standards in the 1980s.
Beneath Zukas’ confident political activism lay a deep-rooted unease. His long-standing frustration with the revolving door of personal assistants he relied on to feed and change clothes often boiled over in exasperation. “I think of myself as a mass of contradictions,” he said in an interview preserved in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. “On the one hand, I am an activist trying to influence various issues, and I can be very assertive about it at times. I don’t like at all, probably because I don’t think I’ll get the job.”
The limitations of his disability required him to painstakingly spell words for people unfamiliar with the word string. , and also found benefits.
“When a lot of people look at me, they think I’m not up to the intellectual level. It makes an impact,” Zukas said. “Besides, I’m somewhat of a spectacle.”
Zukas embraced the spectacle. Before the pandemic, he was a regular at government meetings, criss-crossing the Bay Area.
But for many, the wheelchair-riding man adorned with the “We’re hated because we’re cute” sticker was little more than a Berkeley eccentric. Even administrators at the University of California, Berkeley, where Zukas frequently lectured, were unaware of his place in civil rights history. That’s according to Brad Bailey, who attended the university’s journalism school and shot an award-winning documentary about Zukas in 2017.
“Not just the disability movement, he was overlooked. Hale was very frustrated with that,” Bailey said. While Ed Roberts, a UC Berkeley alumnus, has emerged as the public face of disability rights, Zukas said the media resented the “father” of the anointed movement.
“This might be a bit heresy. Despite all the great talent in his gab, I thought he was pretty superficial,” said the 2018 public, who died three years ago and is now living in an iron lung. Zukas said in 1998, of Roberts, who attracted the attention of In the same conversation, Zukas added that criticizing Roberts may have gone “too far”. “My first trip to Death Valley was in his van.”
Hotchkiss, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant for designing wheelchairs, remembers meeting Zukas for the first time in the early 1970s. Together they traveled on the Washington, DC subway so Zukas could write a report on disability access for Congress.
“Before I knew it, I was dangling from the back of his powerful wheelchair, driving through Washington wondering if I’d make it there alive,” said Hotchkiss, who relied on a slower wheelchair. rice field. That day Zukas got into the “dirt of the system” and “did everything he could”.
“If he could have lived 1,000 years, he would have taken a chance,” said Hotchkiss. “He would have continued to break his way.”