Disability rights advocate Marca Bristo dies at 66

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Marca Bristo speaking at a White House event in 2010 marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She was a longtime leader in the fight to address the needs of the disabled.CreditCreditCharles Dharapak/Associated Press

Chicago, IL — One of Chicago’s most influential advocates for people with disabilities Marca Bristo died last Sunday morning.

Bristo is best known as the founder of Access Living and contributing in reshaping Chicago’s policies for the disabled.

For more than four decades, Mrs. Bristo traveled around the world in her wheelchair, advocating her vision for independent living for people with disabilities. She spent the rest of her life working to change perceptions of the world about the disabled community.

But perhaps her most notable work was the implementation of Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. In fact, she was a key player in the passage of the ADA, which outlawed discrimination against the nearly 50 million Americans with disabilities.

Moreover, Bristo went on to establish Access Living, a nonprofit that promoted independent living for the disabled. The accessibility of all CTA buses is primarily because of Mrs. Bristo and the Access Living community. Furthermore, the organization also initiated a disability housing coalition, which led to the creation of the Office of Disability Policy within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“There wasn’t a policy decision we made over those eight years that would affect the lives of people with disabilities, without consulting Marca,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

“With Marca’s passing, our nation has lost an extraordinary champion for the rights of people with disabilities,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

Numerous political officials also offered their condolences to Bristo’s family.

Mrs. Bristo died after a long battle against cancer in her home in Chicago. Access Living confirmed her death through Twitter.

Marca Bristo’s history – from start to the end of the battle

In the year of 1997, a 23-year-old Marca Bristo was sitting with a friend on the shore of Lake Michigan. A friend’s dog accidentally pushed a pair of Bristo’s shoes down the pool and, without a second thought, she dived in to retrieve them.

However, it was at that moment that changed her life forever. She broke her neck which left her paralyzed from the chest down. Her misfortune cost her her job, her health insurance, house, and so much more. “But I didn’t lose my friends or my family, and I didn’t lose that sort of fighting spirit,” Bristo said in a video.

After the incident, it was when she realized the harrowing reality of most individuals with disability living in Chicago. “It was sort of like moving around a third-world country, in many respects, if you were in a wheelchair.”

“It really took a while for me to let go of my belief that I just had to suck it up, basically, and accept my limitations.”

But rather than dwell on her misfortune, she became a powerful advocate for people with disabilities – and from there, she made history.

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