Spirit Triumphant

For many people, the new $13-million headquarters of Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, stands as a monument to smart design and community service. But for Marca Bristo, the group's president and CEO, the environmentally friendly building (at 115 West Chicago Avenue) is also a triumphant symbol of what people with disabilities can accomplish.

"We knew we were stretching a lot," says Bristo, who uses a wheelchair. "That's part of the disability experience: taking risks and having a tenacious sense of can-do-it-ness."

Paralyzed from the chest down at the age of 23 after a 1977 diving accident, Bristo has backed ambitious projects for most of her adult life. Two years after her accident, she took the helm of the newly formed Access Living, which, among other accomplishments, has helped push to get wheelchair lifts on Chicago Transit Authority buses and improved accessibility to Chicago public schools. Today, with an annual budget of $3.7 million, the organization provides housing, in-home assistance, and other services and programs for more than 1,000 people a year. In addition, Access Living fields 20,000 calls for information and referrals annually.

Bristo has been a national leader as well, helping write the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and serving as the chair of the National Council on Disability from 1994 to 2002. As the vice president of North America for Rehabilitation International, Bristo participated in the negotiation sessions for the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the UN adopted in 2006.

"She has a clear, powerful vision for the disability community," says Andrew J. Imparato, the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, which is based in Washington, D.C. "She's one of our greatest assets in the disability movement."

Bristo—who is 54, married, and the mother of two teenagers—relishes the attention currently focused on the Access Living headquarters and its "universal" design—that is, a design that accommodates the needs of people with and without disabilities. (The building was designed by Jack Catlin of LCM Architects, who also uses a wheelchair.) "Things are coming full circle," Bristo says. "People are coming to us, and that's a tremendous feeling. 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."