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Remembering Hale Zukas, Champion of Disability Rights

Bay Area Man's Influence Felt Nationwide
Pam Mendelsohn

Hale Zukas, a longtime Berkeley resident, untiring advocate for disabled people, founder of the World Institute on Disabilities, co-founder of the Center for Independent Living, and a winner of MTC's  Doris W. Kahn Accessible Transportation Award, died Nov. 30 at the age of 79.

Writing in support of Mr. Zukas' 1992 nomination for the Kahn Award, a Bay Area observer noted that Mr. Zukas, who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy and used an electric wheelchair to navigate the world, "has managed to alter local and national disability policies on everything from wheelchair ramps to in-home support services."

Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Mr. Zukas attended school in San Luis Obispo before moving to Berkeley in the 1960s to study at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics in 1971. During his time at Cal, Mr. Zukas joined a student group known as the Rolling Quads, which advocated for the rights of people with disabilities, and he helped establish the campus' Physically Disabled Students program.

In 1972, Mr. Zukas was among a group of Bay Area residents who founded the Center for Independent Living (CIL), which provided services such as wheelchair repair, job training and housing assistance. Over the next 50 years, the CIL's peer-based service program became a model for hundreds of other independent living centers across the U.S. and around the world. The CIL in 2010 moved from its original location on Telegraph Avenue near the Cal campus to the newly built Ed Roberts Campus adjacent to the Ashby BART station. Developed with nearly $17 million in funding support from MTC, the Ed Roberts Campus, which is named for another late co-founder of the CIL, also serves as a fully accessible home for the World Institute on Disability and other organizations involved in education, services and advocacy for disabled people.

Mr. Zukas served as the CIL's first community affairs coordinator and continued in that position for the next decade, during which time he became a prominent advocate for making streets, transit systems and other public facilities fully accessible for all people. Mr. Zukas was an original member of BART's accessibility advisory group and is recognized as a catalyst for the design of BART elevator cars, in which buttons are placed at a height reachable by wheelchair users. Mr. Zukas and his CIL colleagues also advocated successfully for the installation of sidewalk curb cuts along major Berkeley thoroughfares.

At the national level, Mr. Zukas lobbied for ratification of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating against disabled people; served on the federal Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board; and helped shape the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Mr. Zukas, who communicated primarily through the use of a helmet-mounted pointer and a sheet on his wheelchair tray that displayed the alphabet plus several frequently-used whole words, was the subject of a 2017 documentary short film, Hale, directed by filmmaker Brad Bailey. Mr. Bailey, who submitted the film as a thesis project for U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, earned a Student Academy Award as well as his Journalism degree.

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