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Once a hero to disabled advocates, Jerry Brown sparks controversy

BERKELEY — Four decades ago, people with severe disabilities had little political voice. Then Ed Roberts came on the scene, building the Center for Independent Living here into a model emulated worldwide.

The bearded advocate, left paralyzed by polio, fought for the right to go to school and live at UC Berkeley. He pushed for sidewalk curb cuts and for a chance to earn a living. His work attracted so many disabled activists that he used to joke, “God tipped the United States, and everyone rolled into Berkeley.”

The movement’s biggest breakthrough came in 1975 when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Roberts, now deceased, to lead California’s Department of Rehabilitation — the same agency that had previously told Roberts, who slept in an iron lung, that he was too disabled to work. Brown is such a treasured figure in the movement’s history that the Center for Independent Living had arranged for him to deliver the keynote address at its 40th anniversary celebration Thursday night.

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But this is an era of severe budget strain, and the governor is a different Jerry Brown.

Brown’s scheduled visit inflamed feelings of betrayal over state budget cuts that could force the severely disabled and elderly out of independent residences and into nursing homes. Hours of care covered by In-Home Supportive Services have been reduced 3.6%, and the administration is fighting in court to impose an additional 20% cut. Those reductions are compounded by Medi-Cal cuts and cuts to education that disproportionately affect those with disabilities, advocates say.

Rifts formed. A protest was planned. Then, late Monday, Brown abruptly canceled, citing a scheduling conflict. And that has left everybody reeling.

“I’m not so cynical as to think Jerry Brown would shy away from a protest,” said the center’s executive director, Yomi Wrong. “I don’t know what it means, but I know how it feels. It feels like we came very close to having his attention and having him have ours, and now that opportunity has been delayed if not lost.”

Instead of the governor they love and hate, hundred-dollar ticket holders at the award-winning Ed Roberts Campus — constructed for organizations run by and for the disabled — will be greeted by a videotaped message.

Members of the grass-roots Communities United in Defense of Olmstead, or CUIDO, are planning to protest anyway. “His canceling his appearance … is no indication that he is canceling his ‘Death by 1,000 Cuts’ policies,” wrote the group, which advocates for the right to live in the least restrictive settings possible, in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision.

The dust-up over Brown’s legacy in the midst of fiscal crisis offers a glimpse at the experience of millions of Californians who fear they could lose basic civil rights they fought hard to secure.

Roberts helped carve the path. In state office decades ago, he gained Brown’s backing to use federal funds to found other independent living centers around the state, and persuaded Brown to sign legislation securing their future survival.

Roberts served until 1983 and died a dozen years later. His 92-year-old mother first extended the invitation to Brown as the governor and his wife inducted Ed Roberts into California’s Hall of Fame last December. Zona Roberts said she wanted him to see how far the movement had come, to walk up “that gorgeous red ramp” at the complex named for her son.

Others saw an opportunity for engagement. State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), a longtime supporter, recently presented Brown with a memo from Wrong and a coalition of disability rights groups, seeking a meeting. Among the issues on the agenda: better job assistance and restoration of cuts to IHSS. In exchange, the organizations promised to urge passage of Brown’s proposed tax initiative on November’s ballot.

They are awaiting a response. But for some in the community, any gesture of collaboration is an affront.

“We are really down on what his budget has done to so many people,” said Peni Hall, 63, an artist who suffers from fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities and diabetes, among other ailments, and is a protest organizer.

“People are dying. People will die,” she said, and Brown’s place in the movement’s history “makes it worse.”


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article wrongly identified protest organizer Peni Hall as Peni Hill.


Wrong updated the governor’s office on the planned protest last Thursday. Then, late Monday, she got the call: Brown canceled due to the unexpected funeral of a slain CHP officer. The funeral is at 10 a.m. in Vacaville. Brown was scheduled to speak more than nine hours later at the Berkeley center 45 miles away.

Asked to clarify, Brown spokesman Gil Duran said the funeral required other unspecified “changes in the schedule that mean he won’t be able to attend.” He added: “Balancing the budget has required some very painful cuts to services. Governor Brown fought very hard to prevent many of these cuts, but the votes just weren’t there.”

Wrong said her organization’s door remains open.

“He’s a great thinker,” she said. “We want to engage him and say, ‘Let’s work together.’”

But “now, there will be all kinds of questions about his regard for the 5.9 million Californians with disabilities,” she said.

lee.romney@latimes.com

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.


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