Our History


For nearly four decades, Access Living has impacted the lives of thousands with disabilities

In 1980, Access Living brought the independent living movement to Illinois when our organization was founded as part of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) – now the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. We remained a department within the RIC until 1987 when we became an independent nonprofit. With early support from the RIC, we took on the challenge of removing the obstacles that stood in the way of full equality for people with disabilities in Chicago.

By the mid-1980’s, Access Living was a vocal advocate at the forefront of local and national change. Our staff played key roles in many disability-related improvements that took place in Chicago and across the country.

At home, we were part of the effort to make mainline public transportation more accessible

A black and white photo of disability rights activist Marca Bristo in a meeting with Mayor Richard Daley and Maggie Daley.
Access Living’s Marca Bristo talks with Mayor Richard Daley and Maggie Daley.

As a result, 100 percent of all CTA buses are now accessible. We also successfully advocated for the allocation of $30 million of the Chicago Public Schools’ budget Capital Improvement Plan to make Chicago schools more accessible. In 2006, Access Living’s youth leaders led an effort to restore millions of dollars cut from the Chicago Public Schools’ budget.

Nationally, we focused on housing and civil rights

Access Living initiated a disability housing coalition that led to the creation of 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 the historic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

Marca Bristo and Justin Dart leading a candlelight vigil outside the White House in the 1980s.
In 1989, Marca Bristo and Justin Dart led a march for the ADA to the White House that resulted in a meeting with the Bush administration.

Additionally, we developed an innovative fair housing testing program, designed to identify discrimination against people with disabilities in the housing sales and rentals. This program, as well as our youth program, have served as models for the development of similar programs throughout the country.

In our 40 years, Access Living has made unparalleled contributions to the fight for disability equity, inclusion, and justice. And we have no intention of stopping now.