Meet the Berkeley Man Who Helped Lead the Disability Rights Movement

Hale Zukas was a founder of the disability rights movement at UC Berkeley, and was involved in building a national civil rights movement for people with disabilities. (Photo Courtesy of Brad Bailey)

“Hale” is a new short documentary film about Hale Zukas, who helped make Berkeley the birthplace of the disability rights movement. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child. He went on to study Russian and math at UC Berkeley in the 1970s and he helped found Berkeley’s groundbreaking Center for Independent Living, which has become a nationwide model.

Filmmaker Brad Bailey made the documentary as his thesis project at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He just picked up a Student Academy Award for the project, joining some big names like Spike Lee and Robert Zemeckis. He spoke with Sasha Khokha, host of The California Report Magazine. What follows are some excerpts from their radio interview. 

On choosing to tell the story of Hale Zukas:

I was heading to school to return some equipment one day, and I saw this interesting man in a wheelchair in the courtyard of the journalism school. When I saw him, I could tell that he had overcome a lot of obstacles, despite whatever perceived limitations people may think he has. There was something very witty and very intelligent about him. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, that came out immediately. And then I found out later that he was one of the country’s premier disability rights activists.

How disability touched Bailey’s own life, and influenced his decision to make the film:

When I was 15, my dad had an accident. He got hit by a Mack Truck driving down the expressway. That changed my childhood forever. When that happened, disability affected me and my family firsthand. Disability touches everybody. Nobody is immune from that. No matter your race, your gender, your sexuality, disability is universal. It affects everyone. Hale’s work affected everything from ramp to curb cuts, to the way we build buildings today.

Hale Zukas (left) speaks with director Brad Bailey for his award-winning documentary "Hale."
Hale Zukas (left) speaks with director Brad Bailey for his award-winning documentary “Hale.” (Photo courtesy of Brad Bailey)

On the challenges of making this film when the main subject can’t speak, but uses a pointer, attached to a helmet, to indicate words on a board: 

That was our particular challenge with this film. How do you communicate the brilliance, and wittiness, and insight of a man who can’t verbally communicate? I had to go through my own transformation through my filming with Hale. I learned patience. I learned to sit down and to be able to listen to every single letter he was pointing to and understand what he was communicating to me. I wanted to show in a 20-minute film what I went through in six months. I wanted to obliterate whatever preconceptions people have about people with disabilities. If you get up in the morning and you have life in you, you can achieve whatever challenge that you face.

Filmmaker Brad Bailey affixed a camera to Hale Zukas’ wheelchair, to show his perspective as he zooms around the Bay Area.
Filmmaker Brad Bailey affixed a camera to Hale Zukas’ wheelchair, to show his perspective as he zooms around the Bay Area. (Photo courtesy of Brad Bailey)

On why Hale agreed to affix a camera to his wheelchair and have a filmmaker follow him through his day:

Hale is brilliant, and he can also read people. He knew I was going through my own challenge with my own family with disabilities. He recognized there was something I was trying to understand, and understand in him. Hale is a civil rights hero, but his story hasn’t really been out there. His goal was to build an infrastructure where he could move around independently. And now he’s benefiting from the fruits of that labor. I think he allowed me to do this story because he knows it would continue that advocacy and continue to show what people with disabilities are capable of doing.

On California and the Bay Area’s pivotal role in the disability rights movement:

Hale was always there, every single day. He dealt with the nuts and bolts of advocacy and policy. If you look through the extensive oral history archive at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library about the disability rights movement, you see that people like Judy Heumann and Ed Roberts were the mouthpieces, but Hale was the workhorse. He started writing advocacy and policy papers from the early 1970s. He was instrumental in the first bill which allowed people to hire and fire their own attendants.

Disability rights activists in the Bay Area in the 1970s, lobbying for federal protections. Hale Zekas is on the left.
Disability rights activists in the Bay Area in the 1970s, lobbying for federal protections. Hale Zukas is on the left. (Film still courtesy of Brad Bailey.)

If you look at the San Francisco BART system, for example, Hale was the one they consulted with to design things to be accessible. The buttons on all the elevators were really designed by Hale. He had direct input into things like the height, the location of the button. The Bay Area was used as a model worldwide for transit accessibility.

On a scene in the film when the BART elevator is out, and Hale has to get back on a train to go to a station with a working elevator.

It’s important to show this happens every single day, all over the country. When an elevator is out for you and me that can walk and go up the stairs, it’s no big deal. But for other people, it is. Hale was 40 minutes late to the transit accessibility board meeting on that day when the elevator went out. He was able to relate that experience specifically to the people that make those decisions. He was able to go straight to their ear to effect change.

Meet the Berkeley Man Who Helped Lead the Disability Rights Movement 2 November,2017Sasha Khokha


    I knew Hale for near 30 years, he came to our business many times, I found him to be very smart and very joyful,,,,,,I thank KQED for writing the story about Hale and his successful activism that offered great recognition and help people with disabilities.

  • Joan Lapine Sherizen

    Fascinating! I am the Chair of the Disability Commission on my town and this is the first of have heard of this fascinating man!

  • spookywhite

    MACK Truck. Not Mac. Bravo Brad!

  • Lynda Sawalha

    Hi I am in awe of this man. God put him on this earth to do what he has done. By doing what he did he gave life to millions of people. I camp at pinecrest lake 2 times a year here in california where I live. The camping ground’s picnic tables, bathrooms, trails and beach access are all assessable for the disabled. Even the dog beach and pier. I am proud to be a Californian and god bless this man who is an inspiration to us all. I would love to meet him and also see the documentary. Lynd Sawalha


Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is the host of The California Report  weekly magazine program, which takes listeners on sound-rich radio excursions around the Golden State.

As The California Report’s Central Valley Bureau Chief for nearly a dozen years, Sasha brought the lives and concerns of rural Californians to listeners around the state. Sasha’s reporting helped exposed the hidden price immigrant women janitors and farmworkers may pay to keep their jobs: sexual assault at work — and helped change California law with regard to sexual harassment of farmworkers.  She’s won a national PRNDI award for investigative reporting, as well as multiple prizes from the Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

She began her radio career in waterproof overalls, filing stories about the salmon fishery at Raven Radio in Sitka, AK. She has produced and reported for several documentary films. Calcutta Calling, about children adopted from India to Swedish-Lutheran Minnesota, was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Sasha is  a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and is the mother of two young children.

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