Access Living: 2016 and Beyond

A conversation with President & CEO Marca Bristo

Marca Bristo, center, speaking at ADA25Chicago launch event, surrounded on stage by others.
(Photo: Marca Bristo, center, speaking at ADA25Chicago Launch Event)

My goals for Access Living in 2016 are battling for the civil rights for people with disabilities, continuing to maintain a strong organization and providing consumers and visitors with high quality services,” said Marca Bristo, President & CEO of Access Living. For the past 35 years, she has been on the frontlines of the disability rights movement. In addition to her work at Access Living, from 1994 to 2002 she chaired the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the President on behalf of the 54 million people in the United States with disabilities, and she helped draft and win the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Recently, Marca took time to share her goals and hopes for Access Living in 2016 and beyond.

Before looking ahead, Marca reflected on accomplishments of 2015. Around the country, communities celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Locally, ADA 25 Chicago was a significant highlight. ADA 25 Chicago commemorated the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), leveraging the milestone to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. With the support of ADA 25 Chicago, organizations across Chicago supported events to celebrate and build upon the ADA, such as the Disability Pride Parade and the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium. Also, several Legacy Projects were launched, including the Leadership Institute for People with Disabilities. The institute is designed to facilitate the full participation of people with disabilities in all facets of Chicago’s civic leadership. This Leadership Institute will be the first of its kind in the nation to create a pipeline of qualified people with disabilities and provide access to the networks that can facilitate entry to leadership positions.

Marca Bristo, at a table with two others on both sides, testifying about the Illinois State Budget

While the 25th Anniversary was a highlight, the budget crisis in Illinois posed a big challenge in 2015. As a way to cut costs, Governor Rauner wanted to change the eligibility for the home services program for people with disabilities. If the change had been approved, 10,000 people would have lost their home services and their independence. Access Living played a huge part in preventing the change in eligibility and preserving independence for 10,000 people with disabilities. Yet in 2016, the ongoing state budget crisis continues to leave non-profit organizations and people with disabilities vulnerable to cuts.

The budget impasse is a challenge, but Access Living is forging ahead with two new programming opportunities. “In 2016, we are excited because Access Living is kicking off new initiatives, including a transition program for high school students and a training institute,” said Marca. The Realizing Education and Advancement for Disabled Youth (R.E.A.D.Y.) program will provide Chicago Public high school students with disabilities with tools and support to transition to post high school life. The two track program includes transition support into post secondary education and into employment. The training institute will provide disability rights and awareness trainings for a full spectrum of communities, from non-profits to the business world.

Though she has been leading Access Living for more three decades, Marca is compelled to continue the daily fight for people with disabilities, “because the work isn’t done and because of the amazing people that work at Access Living.” According to Marca, Access Living will have to keep fighting for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. But if anyone is prepared for that fight, it’s Access Living. “I have a highly-skilled group of staff members that work tirelessly beside me to continue the mission of Access Living,” she said.

Working together with her staff and the community, Marca explains that, “We want to continue to help people find their voice and change and reshape the way our country thinks about the disability community.”

In particular, change needs to come in the area of employment. Marca hopes that Access Living can change the face of employment for everyone. “In order to create more jobs, we need to foster the link between people who are looking for jobs and people who are hiring,” she said.

Another need is in the area of evolving technology and the “shared economy.” Marca hopes to see increased accessibility for people with disabilities with organizations like Uber and Air B&B.
Access Living continues to be at the forefront of health care advocacy. “There needs to be a continued shift toward closing institutions,” Marca said. To meet the demand of people transitioning out of institutions and into their own homes, there needs to be a shift in the housing market toward accessibility. The key is to send the message that what works for people with disabilities works for everyone. According to Marca, “If they (houses) are not accessible for people with disabilities then they aren’t accessible to anyone because we will all likely need those features someday.”

While in the short term, the demand for Access Living is greater than ever, Marca hopes that someday disability equality is the norm. “I envision a day where Access Living is not needed,” Marca said.

Ultimately, Marca knows that in 2016 Access Living will continue fighting for the independence and dignity of people with disabilities. “We want to continue empowering people and helping them to find their voice and the path to independence. We need to keep pushing for the social change that needs to occur so that they can realize those dreams.”

(Top Photo: Marca Bristo, center - speaking in the microphone, at the ADA 25 Chicago Kick Off event in 2016. Behind Marca are a number of Chicago and Illinois VIPs that supported ADA 25 Chicago)

(Photo above: Marca Bristo sitting at a rectangular table, testifying over the 2015 Illinois Budget. Total of five people at the table.)

This piece was written by Jessica Ebersole, a public relations intern at Access Living