Susan O'Hara

A Champion of Independent Living and Autonomy

Director of the UC Berkeley Disabled Students' Program (1988-1992), Coordinator of the Residence Program (1975-1988),
Disability Rights Advocate & Community Historian

Lifelong educator and polio survivor Susan O’Hara empowered fellow wheelchair users and people with disabilities to lead independent and fulfilling lives. The Illinois native enrolled in classes at UC Berkeley during the summer of 1971 to participate in the Cowell Residence Program, one of the earliest experiments with residential accommodations for students with significant physical disabilities. O’Hara was amazed by the established system of care and availability of resources at the university. The nascent Physically Disabled Students’ Program (PDSP) provided camaraderie, motorized wheelchairs, and around-the-clock mechanic services for students with mobility impairments. The empowering freedom inspired her permanent relocation to Berkeley, CA.

 grayscale photo of a man directing crane lifting an iron lung into one of the rooms of the unit 2 residence hall

In 1975, the Cowell Residence Program evolved into the Disabled Students Residence Program (DSRP) and O’Hara was hired as the new program coordinator. Within two months, she assembled an administrative team to help incoming students with physical disabilities transition into the newly retrofitted Unit II residence halls. She reassured concerned families and explained the importance of autonomy for people with disabilities to achieve life goals and actively participate in social life, a core tenet of the Independent Living Movement. O’Hara also collaborated with campus stakeholders to create more architecturally accessible spaces. When PDSP expanded to serve students with non-physical disabilities, the organization was more accurately renamed the Disabled Students’ Program (DSP) in 1982. That was also the year O’Hara contacted Willa Baum, the director of the Regional Oral History Office at the Bancroft Library, with a proposal to create an archive chronicling the Disability Rights Movement.

 grayscale photo of 8 people using wheelchairs dressed in formal attire as DSRP participants; there are 2 people standing and smiling into the camera; in the far left is Susan O'Hara in candid conversation with an unidentified manO’Hara and Baum recognized the disabled students’ movement as a historic turning point in American culture and sought patronage for a collection of oral histories and artifacts. Baum secured a modest grant from Cal’s Prytanean Alumnae Society for two pilot interviews in 1984 and 1985. However, the oral history project would not grow for another decade. Fundraising efforts for the project paused when O’Hara accepted the position of DSP Director in 1988. During her sustained support of DSP, the program grew from serving seventeen students to seven hundred.

After retirement in 1992, O’Hara reconnected with Baum to establish the DRILM oral history collection at the Bancroft Library. Their persistence paid off with a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to interview disability rights activists, culminating in a series titled Builders and Sustainers of the Independent Living Movement in Berkeley, CA. Together, they facilitated over 100 interviews and secured an additional grant to expand the project nationwide. The result was the Disability Rights and Independent Living Oral Histories archive. True to the mantra of the disability rights movement: “nothing about us without us,” O’Hara staffed the project with interviewers from the disability community. From student to coordinator to director, Susan O’Hara’s greatest role at UC Berkeley may be that of a community historian changing public narratives of, and highlighting the diversity in, people with disabilities.

By Mary Tan, 150W Project Assistant & Class of 2020

Read more:
An Oral History with Susan O'Hara
Context for the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project
“Fertile Ground: the Berkeley Campus and Disability Affairs” by Susan O’Hara
Berkeley News: Campus archives reveal genesis of U.S. disability rights movement

ID: grayscale photo of Susan O'Hara smiling in a short sleeved collared dress sitting in a wheelchair facing perpendicular from the camera
ID: photo of Cowell Hospital, a building with 5 floors and dual stairs leading to the main entrance

Cowell Hospital, site of Cal's Residence Program

ID: Prof Raymond Lifchez standing with a 3D model and several students with disabilities

Prof. Raymond Lifchez led studios on accessible design with insight from students with disabilities