UC Berkeley library to house papers, photos from longtime Sonoma County advocate for the disabled Anthony Tusler
Work an entire, productive career through to retirement and among the things you’ll likely end up with are boxes of stuff: Papers, books, files, photographs and artifacts from your workspace walls and shelves.
What do you do with it all? If you’re Anthony Tusler, a veteran Sonoma County advocate for and provider of services to people with disabilities, you marvel that much of your stuff is being accepted into the archives at UC Berkeley’s esteemed Bancroft Library.
Tusler feels certain his materials will be in good company. While visiting the library, one of the country’s largest and most utilized repositories of manuscripts, rare books and unique materials, he spotted a posted reference to Mark Twain’s papers and he found in a display case a historic, golden stone.
“To see the gold nugget that started the Gold Rush blew my mind so much that I don’t remember what else was in there,” the Penngrove resident said.
Unable to walk since an accidental gunshot rendered him paraplegic at age 5, Tusler, now 68, photographed and took part in pioneering the disability-rights movement. He co-founded and from 1975 until 1997 directed Sonoma State University’s Disability Resource Center, originally the Office for Students with Disabilities.
Four boxes of his materials are in the process of being entered into the Bancroft Library’s Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement archives.
An avid photographer, Tusler seems happiest that one of his many developed rolls of black-and-white Kodak film will be preserved indefinitely at the library. He shot the roll at disability activists’ 1977 demonstration and 26-day sit-in at the Federal Building in San Francisco - history’s longest occupation of a U.S. federal building.
The act of civil disobedience helped to achieve enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The section included the first federal language protecting people with disabilities from discrimination and is regarded as a precursor of the more comprehensive Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Tusler went to the rally and sit-in in San Francisco nearly 40 years ago with Sonoma State College student Steve Dias. Tusler was thrilled when he developed the photographs, especially one of Dias, viewed from behind, with a hand-drawn protest sign - “We shall OVERCOME” - resting against Dias’ wheelchair.
“It’s the best roll of film I’ve ever taken,” Tusler said. “It’s like Frank Capra shot it!”
Tusler’s black-and-white photo of Dias, with several other demonstrators in wheelchairs around him and the ornate dome of San Francisco City Hall in the background, became an iconic image of the disability rights movement.
Right now, the photo is featured prominently in all promotional materials for an exhibit in Berkeley, “Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights,” a commemoration of the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act. More ?of Tusler’s pictures from the ’77 sit-in appear in ?the exhibit, which will ?be open through Dec. 18 ?at the Ed Roberts Campus on Berkeley’s Adeline Street.
Tusler was thinking primarily of the roll of Tri-X film from the historic San Francisco sit-in when he contacted David de Lorenzo, associate director of the Bancroft Library. They met and de Lorenzo was delighted by the prospect of the library becoming the guardian of film documenting the protest credited with spurring the U.S. secretary of Health, Education and Welfare at the time, Joseph Califano, to sign into law the anti-discrimination safeguards of Section 504.
“Anthony’s photos are a treasure, frankly.” de Lorenzo said.
He happily accepted the film and also a sizable collection of the papers of the grass-roots activist who made Sonoma State University a leader in the creation of services for students, professors and staff members with disabilities.
Also pleasing to de Lorenzo is Tusler’s unusual collection of images and artwork that portray disabled people using all manner of devices that allow them to move about and to participate. Among them are Tusler calls “beggar cards,” which often were printed with poems and were sold by people with disabilities and few other options for self-support.
“We just don’t have that kind of material in our collection,” de Lorenzo said. He said Tusler’s complete donation to the Bancroft Library provides “another window to disability rights activism in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”
Tusler came to Sonoma State College in 1967 as a 20-year-old anti-war activist with a ponytail, a camera and a pair of crutches. Paralyzed from the waist down since he and a fellow preschooler found, loaded and fired his father’s rifle, he had steadfastly avoided associating with others who back then were commonly called “crippled.”
Then he met Sonoma State student Dias, a socially conscious sort who was working to remove the physical and sociological barriers that he and other people with disabilities encountered at the college and elsewhere.
Recalling the effect Dias had on him, Tusler said, “He was hip, he was cool. He was a competent disabled person, wheelchair user. He dispelled all my stereotypes.”
Tusler had been buying into the presumption that disabled people were pitiful and hopeless. “That’s the last group I wanted to be identified with,” he said.
“When I met Steve, it was like, I want to be part of this.”
Tusler co-founded Sonoma State’s office for students with disabilities and in 1975, about two years before the sit-in in San Francisco, became its director. His knowledge in the area of addiction, focused initially on alcohol and drug abuse among people with disabilities, led to his working concurrently as director of the Rohnert Park university’s alcohol and drug education program.
Tusler was also key to the founding of Sonoma County’s nonprofit Community Resources for Independence, now the Disability Services & Legal Center.
His work at Sonoma State, his advocacy and writing brought him national recognition: In 1994, then-U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala invited him onto the National Advisory Council of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
Tusler left Sonoma State University in 1997, then worked for three years at Santa Rosa Junior College, running its Disability High-Tech Center. Since retiring from the JC, he had enjoyed more time at home in Penngrove with his wife, Lyndi Brown, ?and he has pondered what best to do with the rest of his photographs, papers and keepsake images of people with disabilities endeavoring to navigate the world.
Pleased to see them go off the Bancroft Library, he said, “I figure some of the things I’ve done are worth saving.”
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @CJSPD.