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‘The Renaissance Man’: Ray Lifchez, disability rights activist and professor, dies at age 90

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Lifchez, pictured right, is remembered as a leader in disability rights, and his legacy lives on through UC Berkeley's college of environmental design, which he helped elevate to be a leader in social justice.


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SEPTEMBER 14, 2023

Unanimously remembered for his sense of humility, activism, Southern charm and heart, Raymond Lifchez, professor emeritus of architecture and city and regional planning, died at the age of 90 on Sept. 6.

Jim LeBrecht, co-director of the documentary Crip Camp, credited Lifchez as the father of universal design — the creation of a seamless accessible space or building.

“Ray had this real affinity for the disabled community,” LeBrecht said. “I was born with spina bifida and I’m a wheelchair user and my understanding of Ray is that he came to Berkeley and he saw all these folks rolling around and it grabbed him as an architect. He was really curious about making the world more accessible for folks.”

Professor emeritus of city and regional planning Frederick Collignon described Lifchez as a leader of the university’s focus on independent living, which became pivotal for disability movements across the country.

Lifchez brought awareness to disability rights not only through his teaching, but through his book nominated for the American Book Award, “Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People.”

“One of the reasons I came to Berkeley is because it had such a strong legacy about work and climate resilience and Environmental Equity,”  said Dean of the College of Environmental Design, Renee Chow. “And of course, the equity side is really Ray, one of the people who established the legacy in our college in 1960. Ray’s work with people like Clare Cooper Marcus really elevated the college and the department as being the leaders in the realm of social justice at that time.”

Collignon noted Lifchez was responsible for rallying support for disability rights from students, faculty and a broad range of communities that did not primarily focus on disability rights, including the Black Panthers and the Gray Panthers.

Collignon said his openness and willingness to work with others made Lifchez an “easy ally,” especially when Collignon sought to help establish the Disability Studies Program on campus.

Lifchez and his colleagues fundraised for scholarships to bring more disabled students to campus graduate programs. Both Collignon and Lifchez recruited Judith Heumann, an international leader in the disability rights movement, in hopes of uniting the disabled community at Berkeley.

“You still have several decades of producing people who became national leaders in the international and regional disability community,” Collignon said. “And that’s not trivial. Without Berkeley, I don’t think you’d have an international disability movement.”

Lifchez was born in South Carolina in 1932. He earned several degrees from the University of Florida and Columbia University, where he met his late wife Judith Lee Stonarch in an art history class.

Lifchez and his wife moved to Berkeley in the 1970s to work toward his master’s degree in city planning, according to previous chair assistant Ann Gilkerson.

The couple fell in love with Berkeley, and after graduating, Lifchez began working as a professor on campus in 1972, Gilkerson noted. Lifchez then spent the next 50 years of his life teaching in the departments of architecture and city and regional planning, cultivating relationships with his students and advocating for the rights of disabled people through architecture.

Gilkerson noted that as a person with a broad range of interests including literature, art history and activism, Lifchez “lived life to the fullest.” He was never one to boast about any of his achievements — she thought of him as a “renaissance man” in that way.

“You would never know everything the man has accomplished, he always had on shorts, Birkenstocks and a T-shirt,” Chow said.

Contact Madison Creekbaum at 


SEPTEMBER 15, 2023