Then and Now: Remembering Marca Bristo


Remembering Access Living’s Founding CEO

Marca Bristo, a white woman in a power chair.
Marca Bristo, June 23, 1953 – September 8, 2019

Access Living’s founding CEO and internationally renowned disability rights leader Marca Bristo passed away on September 8, 2019 from cancer.

Paralyzed from the chest down in a diving accident at age 23, Marca became a staunch disability activist early in life and was named CEO of Access Living just two years after her accident.

“With Marca’s passing, our nation lost an extraordinary champion for the rights of people with disabilities.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

Advocates from all fields recognized Marca’s powerful – and sometimes deliberately
controversial – tactics. To work with Marca was to be part of a never-ending conversation about disability. 24/7, 365 days a year, she guided and mentored us.

That’s why almost 40 years after Marca took the helm at Access Living, we continue to be a highly influential voice in the fight for equity and inclusion of people with disabilities.

Marca was beloved in Chicago, not only for her ability to cement longstanding relationships, but because she saw opportunities that opened doors for people with disabilities. She was not a leader for just one community, but in solidarity with all. Because of Marca, Access Living is a place for people who wish to serve others and who are ready to challenge the status quo.

“Marca Bristo leaves an incredible legacy of making the world more just and accessible for everyone in her community. Her work will live on with the countless friends and colleagues she inspired, including me.”

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker

Marca did that herself and her advocacy never stopped. One of her crowning achievements was helping to author the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation that granted people with disabilities civil rights, which was signed into law in 1990. Her efforts led to accessible buses in Chicago, the first fair housing program in the country to address disability discrimination, the inclusion of disability issues in domestic violence law, and the requirement for all televisions to have close-captioned decoders.

When asked about her advocacy work in a 2008 interview with Chicago Magazine she said, “That’s part of the disability experience: taking risks and having a tenacious sense of can-do-itness. The things we’ve been advocating are not just for a marginal group of people; they’re for the society as a whole. Disability affects all of us. It’s time that we normalize and accept it rather than perceive it to be at the margins of
our society.”

Marca, we miss you. We know you’re still with us as we lead on. We aim to be champions of change and to lead from power as you did. Thank you for showing us how. We are forever grateful.

“Marca had a remarkable way of bringing out the best within us. For me, she was a trusted voice and a persistent, buoyant spirit – an example that progress can be slow, but it’s always possible. We’ll miss her, but we’re far better off because of her fight.”

Barack Obama