It is with great sadness that the Center for Independent Living (the CIL) announces the passing of Neil Jacobson, a giant of the local and national disability rights and Independent Living Movement. Described by CIL staff and Board members as a fierce, creative, and dedicated activist and friend to so many, Neil was a vital part of the movement. He was deeply principled, whip-smart and no-nonsense with a great sense of humor with which he overcame the awkwardness he often encountered with non-disabled people.
Born with cerebral palsy, Neil was part of a movement of young people with disabilities who moved to California in the early 1970s to join the Independent Living Movement of People with Disabilities, which was centered at the time in the CIL. Neil was trained in computer technology and recognized its importance as an employment opportunity for people with disabilities as well as an important access resource. In 1975, he and Scott Luebking, who was also significantly disabled, appealed to IBM for support to establish a program at the CIL to train disabled students in the field. The program was so successful that 92% of the 300+ students found competitive employment and it was used as a model throughout the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, and for the Neil Jacobson Computer Center in Uganda.
As the program grew, it transitioned into its own nonprofit as the Computer Training Program, an organization that continues this work today. It is located at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, beside CIL and several other organizations that were also once started by the people with disabilities who led the CIL.
He also worked for Wells Fargo as a disabled IT professional for 29 years and was a member of the World Institute on Disability’s board for decades. In 2009, Neil retired from Wells Fargo as a Sr. Vice President to found Abilicorp, a foundation to help disabled-owned businesses. More recently, he was developing a Personal Assistant Services project through Abilicorp (ABPAS), to address the shortage of attendants by both recruiting attendants and building an easily accessible online directory where consumers and attendants can match their schedules and needs. In 2020, he was featured in the Academy Award Nominated documentary “Crip Camp.”
The CIL is grateful for Neil’s lifelong advocacy for people with disabilities and dedication to the Independent Living Movement. We intend to continue his work to recruit and match attendants to people with disabilities in support of their independence and to prepare people with disabilities for employment, particularly in gaining the technological skills increasingly relevant for today’s workforce.
Jacobson is survived by his wife Denise who lives in Oakland. Their son, David, lives nearby.
The following is a direct quote of a tribute to Neil Jacobson, including the specific language of the quote.
A Man of Exuberant Humor
It was with excitement but also a moment’s hesitation that teacher Nancy Rubin in the 1970s accepted Neil Jacobson’s offer to speak to her social living class at Berkeley High School. She was aware that sometimes high school students can be rude and insensitive in unfamiliar situations. Neil was in a wheelchair and spoke with visible strain, but Rubin’s concerns evaporated when Neil rolled into her classroom and immediately announced to the students, “For the first couple of minutes you are not going to understand a fucking thing I say.” There was a hesitant moment of silence, then the students burst into laughter. It took one sentence for Neil to erase any instinctive disquiet they might have felt about a visibly disabled man and about disability generally.
Neil’s sharp, often rambunctious wit similarly cut through the widespread discomfort with disability on another occasion when he attended a UCSF class on human sexuality. The class was led through a guided visualization exercise on the obstacles of dating while disabled. The exercise entailed students closing their eyes as they imagined, with the assistance of a presenter, what it would be like to be disabled. When the point had been made, they were advised to open their eyes and told, “You are no longer disabled.” In response, a voice piped up from the back of the room: “Far fucking out!” It was Neil, of course — and still disabled, of course.