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PASSAGES Disability rights advocate Bristo passes away
by Matt Simonette
2019-09-11

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Chicagoan Marca Bristo, who was at the forefront of numerous causes relating to disability rights, passed away Sept. 8. She was 66.

Bristo was founder of the advocacy Access Living, which she began in 1980, a few years after a diving accident in Lake Michigan left her paralyzed from the chest down. Among her accomplishments were helping to author the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act legislation, as well as working behalf on rules that led to Chicago Transit Authority's installation of ramps as well as closed-captioning functionality on televisions.

Bristo recently stepped down from her post as Access Living's CEO and president because of health issues. She had also worked as a nurse and worked in a number of advocacy and governmental advisory capacities, among them a 1994 appointment from President Bill Clinton to chair the National Council on Disability and having served as president of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, where she campaigned for the United States to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. She was named as a trustee of the Ford Foundation in June 2019.

"Marca was exceptional," said Access Living Board Chair Andres Gallegos in a statement. "[She was] a visionary and leader with extraordinary skills who built Access Living into the most influential center for independent living in the country. She loved Access Living and foremost for its people. She challenged and helped those around her achieve their full potential, and in doing so, she has cultivated the next generation of disability rights leaders. As a testament to her leadership and influence, Access Living alumni are in leadership positions in city and state government, national disability advocacy organizations and have served, and are serving, as advisors to federal governmental leaders. She was rightfully proud of that. Through them, her legacy lives on."

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky ( IL-9 ) added, "Marca will go down in history as one of the most influential leaders of the disability rights and independent living movements. Because of Marca, countless people have been freed from confining living arrangements and liberated to live independently in communities. She was the founder and long-time President of the premier advocacy organization for people with disabilities, Chicago-based Access Living. Marca played a central role in the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, and was an important advisor to President Barack Obama."

"Marca reached out to me during my first few months home after Walter Reed, and she has been a friend and counselor—especially on disability issues—ever since," recalled U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. "Without Marca's work over the last 30 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act would not be in existence and I would not be a U.S. senator. Because she crawled up the steps of the United States Capitol to pass the ADA, I get to roll through its corridors to cast my votes in the U.S. Senate. While we have so much progress yet to make, the disability community can thank Marca's leadership, activism and sacrifice for the more inclusive society we live in today. I was honored to call her my friend and will miss her dearly."


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