John Hessler, Pioneer in Independence for Disabled People, Dies

John Hessler revolutionized the US's attitudes toward disabled people - first by entering the University of California, Berkeley, and later by helping create the Center for Independent Living. Internet publication URL:

by Art Campos
Bee Staff Writer, May 13, 1993, Davis, California

John Hessler's spirit could have been destroyed along with his spinal cord that day in 1957 when he dove into a swimming hole. But the 6-foot-7 inch Hessler wasn't one who wanted to spend the rest of his life in hospitals or sitting in a wheelchair at home.

He went on to help revolutionize the nation's attitudes toward disabled people - first by entering the University of California, Berkeley, and later by helping create the Center for Independent Living, a program now run in 27 cities.

Hessler's 30 years of service to people with disabilities came to an end Monday when he died of heart failure in Sacramento hospital. He had been in a coma since a heart attack April 8, according to his brother, Tony, of Antioch.

The 52-year-old Hessler, chief of expanded access to primary care programs for the California Department of Health Services, was remembered by his friends for his determination to improve daily living conditions for people with disabilities. "Many programs would not exist today or at least be in the form they are in if it hadn't been for John," said David Rhodes of the attorney general's office, a long-time friend of Hessler's.

"When John started at Berkeley, there was really nothing for disabled students. All the independent living programs, all the college disabled students programs - he impacted all of those. he helped lay the groundwork for it to happen." Another friend, Nora Brusuelas, assistant director of the state Department of Corrections, said Hessler "just wanted to be like everybody else."

He and Ed Roberts were the two pioneers," she said. "They became the advocates in the 1960s that created the disabled student movement at Berkeley. And it quickly spread across the country."

Brusuelas recalled with a laugh how Hessler and Roberts, who required an iron lung, literally turned the university's hallways into their own private speedway. "They'd race up and down in their wheelchairs, scaring nurses and generally raising hell," she said. "They were so glad to be out of hospitals, rest homes or back bedrooms." Hessler and Roberts pulled disabled and visually impaired students together at Berkeley to develop the Physically Disabled Students' Program.

Hessler was in charge of the program, which offered such services as van transportation, wheelchair repair, referrals for personal care and couseling for students both on an d off campus.

In 1972, Hessler and Roberts formed a similar program for disabled East Bay residents. Roberts headed the office in Berkeley, and it was called the Center for Independent Living.

Three years later, Gov. Jerry Brown named Roberts director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Hessler as the top deputy. Together they persuaded the state to help people with disabilities become independent through financial assistance to the Center for Independent Living.

Hessler's brother said he was someone who wouldn't take no for an answer. "He'd try to figure out ways to do something and he'd stay with it," Tony Hessler said. "And he had a way about him so that he didn't tick people off. He'd then get things done."

Though paralyzed from the neck down, Hessler, with practice, learned to extend his arm and use leverage to pick things up.

He taught himself to drive, to cook and to remove his tall frame from his wheelchair and place himself in bed.

"He loved to travel," said Tony Hessler. "He went on cruises and airplanes. He visited Switzerland, Germany and Austria a few years ago. He took an ocean cruise to Alaska. And he loved to fish whenever he could."

Hessler also is survived by his mother, Elizabeth, of Antioch.