Hale Zukas – Disabled Advocate & Leader

By Corbett O’Toole

Hale Zukas, a pivotal leader on accessible public transportation, architectural barriers, data related to disability and personal assistance services, died this week.

Hale did the grueling work of gathering data, developing advocacy strategies, and crafting public policy language and even legislation.

His groundbreaking work created access where none existed. Today we take for granted accessible public transportation but Hale made that happen. He is largely unknown most likely due to the perception that people with cerebral palsy who use a head wand to spell on his letter board are not “leaders.”

One of my favorite memories of him was simply riding the BART train. I got on a few stops before him so when he boarded he just sat over in the nearby bike area. He made sure trains had more than one accessible space – even if only one was marked for “wheelchairs.”

The simple ease of two wheelchair users taking the subway and fitting in the same train car was due to his hard work.

As I glanced at him, working as always on the train, I noticed his bumper sticker. “They hate us because we’re pretty.”

I smiled and snapped a photo. His humor belied a sometimes gruff exterior. He was one of the smartest, most dedicated people I ever met. I benefit everyday from the world he changed.

On a BART train, a man with long hair and a helmet sits in a power wheelchair with two bags hanging on the handles.
Hale Zukas, disability and accessibility advocate, rides on a BART train. (Credit: Corbett O’Toole)
Bumper sticker on a wheelchair says, "They hate us because we're pretty."
A bumper sticker that Hale had on the side of his wheelchair says, “They hate us because we’re pretty.” (Credit: Corbett O’Toole)

Hale Zukas Bio

Hale J. Zukas was born on May 31, 1943 in Los Angeles, California. While attending UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s, he joined the Rolling Quads, a group of severely disabled students in the Cowell Residence Program who had organized themselves to advocate for the rights of students with disabilities. Zukas became one of the founders of the Physically Disabled Students Program (PDSP) on the Berkeley campus, and in 1971, he graduated with a B.A. in mathematics.

In 1972, Zukas and others founded the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley. He was CIL’s first coordinator of community affairs and remained in that position until 1982. During this time, he became an expert on benefit programs for disabled and elderly people, particularly Supplemental Security Income and In-Home Supportive Services. Zukas also became a leading advocate for the elimination of architectural and transportation barriers, especially on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco Bay area.

In 1983, Zukas joined the World Institute on Disability (WID) in Oakland, California, as a public policy analyst, later becoming WID’s Director of Research. Through his work at WID, Zukas has become an internationally recognized expert on such issues as personal assistance services, accessible mass transportation, the elimination of architectural barriers, and disability- related statistics. Zukas became the vice chair of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board in 1983, where he had been a member of the Standards, Research, and Technical Assistance Committee since 1979.

Zukas consults for several agencies and organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the Federal Highway Administration. He is the author of Attending to America: Report of the National Survey of Attendant Services Programs in the United States(1987), CIL History (1976), and various reports and articles.

Source: The ABC-CLIO Companion to The Disability Rights Movement by Fred Pelka, ABC-CLIO Inc.: Santa Barbara, California, 1997, p. 340.

Images: Photo of Hale sitting on a BART train working. Close up photo of his bumper sticker “they hate us because we’re pretty”