Our History

A Brief History of Access Living

Access Living in 1980
In 1980, Access Living brought the independent living movement to Illinois when it was founded as part of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's quest to address the growing need for affordable, accessible housing for its patients ready to leave the RIC
In 1972, the independent living movement, with roots in the civil rights and social change movements, began taking shape with the creation of the country's first center for independent living, the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. As other centers for independent living sprang up across the country, a new philosophy emerged -- an "independent living philosophy" that asserts that people with disabilities are their own best advocates and able to make the necessary decisions in order to live, work and socialize in the community. This was a significant shift away from the prevailing "medical model" which viewed people with disabilities as individuals who needed to be cared for. The community of people with disabilities entered the dawn of a new era.

In 1980, Access Living brought the independent living movement to Illinois when it was founded as part of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's quest to address the growing need for affordable, accessible housing for its patients ready to leave the RIC. Access Living remained a department within the RIC until 1984, when it became an independent non-profit group.

In the early 1980's society largely ignored people with disabilities. They were invisible: disrespected and viewed as little more than recipients of charity. Few options, if any, existed for to people with disabilities to engage in the community. Disabled people were segregated in housing, in schools, in cultural and sports arenas, in restaurants, shopping and entertainment. There was limited access to quality medical care, no accessible public transportation, no curb cuts, and communications access was rarely available. Employment opportunities were less than minimal. With early support from the RIC, Access Living’s committed staff took on the challenge of removing the obstacles that stood in the way of full equality for people with disabilities.

Chicago’s First Center for Independent Living
By the mid-1980's Access Living was a thriving non-profit organization, growing from a small storefront on North LaSalle Street to a much larger loft space, headquartered on Van Buren Street. But Access Living did not let its relative youth prevent it from tackling many of Chicago’s most pressing problems: the lack of housing, personal assistance and transportation options for people with disabilities. Successfully linking powerful advocacy efforts around these and other crucial issues to specific client needs enabled Access Living to turn clients into activists, and activists into leaders.

Support and Services
Access Living’s peer-based programs, including independent living skills training and peer counseling and support, provided thousands of people with the essential skills and motivation to take back control of their lives. For nearly three decades, Access Living has impacted the lives of thousands of individuals with disabilities through direct services, advocacy and education. Access Living’s mission, based on the philosophy of the Independent Living Movement, is to empower people with disabilities so they may lead dignified, independent lives and to foster an inclusive society for all people – with and without disabilities.

A vocal advocate on the forefront of local and national change, Access Living has played a key role in many of the improvements that took shape in Chicago and across the country. At home, Access Living has been a part of several campaigns to make mainline public transportation more accessible. Today, 100% of all CTA buses are lift-equipped.

Also, Access Living successfully advocated for and won the allocation of $30 million of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) budget Capital Improvement Plan for making CPS more accessible. In 2006, Access Living’s Youth Leaders led a effort to restore millions of dollars cut from the Public Schools Special Education Budget.

Nationally, Access Living initiated a disability housing coalition that was responsible for creating the Office on Disability Policy at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and had a leadership role in drafting and passing of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990. Access Living also developed an innovative Fair Housing Testing Program, designed to identify discrimination against people with disabilities in the sale and rental of housing. Access Living’s Testing Program and Youth Program have served as models for the development of similar programs throughout the country. These examples are just some of the ways Access Living has made an unparalleled contribution to the progress of the disability community.

Living the Vision
In 2003 Access Living launched Living the Vision: The Campaign to Build a Permanent Home for Access Living. The goal of securing a permanent office space was to secure Access Living’s financial stability, while allowing the organization to continue to expand and pioneer new programs and standards of service for people with disabilities, both nationally and internationally.

On March 5, 2007, the dream became a reality when Access Living opened its doors at 115 West Chicago Avenue.

The new, state-of-the-art facility stands as a national model of Universal Design -- which reconceives fundamental architectural ideas and provides spaces that accommodate the broadest possible range of users. The building also will meet the needs of future users while having a limited impact on the environment, making it one of the first buildings to successfully combine Universal and Green Design.

Access Living's space is more than a new building. It is a testament to accessibility, sustainability and potential. A model of innovation, the elegant glass edifice facing Chicago Avenue welcomes everyone to pursue empowerment and independence.

While confronting the issues posed by inaccessible housing, transportation and public services may be a crucial step in achieving independence, a major component of breaking down physical barriers is changing the attitudinal barriers that built them in the first place. With an engaging array of cultural events, workshops, trainings and support groups, Access Living now focuses on instilling pride in the way people with disabilities view themselves and fosters dignity in the way others view the disability community.