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How Marca Bristo took down barriers for Americans with disabilities

Marca Bristo may not have been a household name, but her influence permeated American society. At age 23, Bristo was paralyzed from the waist down in a diving accident. She became a disability rights activist, working to improve access, fight discrimination and create a model for independent living. Bristo died Sunday at age 66. Judy Woodruff talks to former Sen. Tom Harkin about her legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, we remember a woman who helped changed the law and the lives of tens of millions of people with disabilities.

    Marca Bristo may not have been a household name, but her work seeped into many U.S. households. Paralyzed from the waist down after a diving accident when she was 23, Bristo became a longtime disability rights activist from her home base in Chicago.

    She worked on improving access and rights, no matter how small or how large the issue. Bristo fought against discrimination, helped create a better model for independent living, and led strikes and helped file lawsuits that led to the creation of bus lifts in Chicago.

    She was a pivotal voice in the shaping and passage of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

    Bristo died yesterday of cancer at the age of 66.

    Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa knew her well and worked with her when he helped to write the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    Senator Harkin, thank you so much for being here. And we're sorry for your loss. We know how close you were to Marca Bristo.

    You have worked for decades in the disabilities movement.

  • Tom Harkin:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did — how should we see Marca Bristo in that movement?

  • Tom Harkin:

    I think she will enshrined in the future as one of the great leaders of a global disability — civil rights movement for persons with disabilities.

    When you think of the civil rights movement for African-Americans, you of course think of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and John Lewis. I think, when people in the future look back at the disability rights civil rights movement, they will think of, of course, Justin Dart and George H.W. Bush that signed the law, but they will also think of Marca Bristo, who really made it happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As I mentioned, you were pivotal in writing and putting together the Americans With Disabilities Act. You worked on it.

    A lot of people were involved in that. It was the late 1980s into 1990, when President George Bush, H.W. Bush, signed it into law.

    What did Marca Bristo do that others weren't doing at that time?

  • Tom Harkin:

    She was Justin Dart's protege. Justin Dart…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he, of course, was one of the real leaders.

  • Tom Harkin:

    One of the real advocates of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    He, in his wheelchair, went to all 50 states. But then he got ahold of this young woman from Chicago, Marca Bristo, and sort of got her to move all over the country getting young people involved, young people who may have been born with a disability or, like herself, had been injured in an accident.

    And she got them stimulated to think about themselves not in terms of someone that just had to take what was given to them, but to start getting young people to demand better access to all forms of living in America.

    She was a foot soldier in that effort.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I met her at an Access Living event in Chicago. That was an organization that she helped to found all around, pushing for independent living for people with disabilities.

    What do you think drove her? What pushed her to do what she did?

  • Tom Harkin:

    She wrote about this once and spoke about it often, and I have often talked about the fact, after she had her diving accident when she was 23, as you mentioned, she thought: How am I going to cope? How do I have to change my life?

    Well, she ran into Judy Heumann, another advocate for disability rights, and a few other people, Ed Roberts, others, in the movement, who said, no, you don't have to change. They have got to change. Society needs to change.

    They need to change the way they buildings, the way they make doorways, the way they have bus lifts. You're still the same person. They have got to change how they're doing it.

    And so that sort of got her thinking that, yes, society has built in all these barriers to people with disabilities. If we break down the barriers, people with disabilities can do anything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She wouldn't accept the idea that anything was closed to someone with a disability.

  • Tom Harkin:

    Marca Bristo didn't want to be paternalized. She didn't want to have people patting her on the head and say, now you go off and we will help you. She said: Take the barriers down. I can help myself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She was tough.

  • Tom Harkin:

    Oh, she was tough. She was very tough, but had a heart of gold.

    She was just one of the most unique persons I have ever known in my lifetime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, she certainly left a mark on the lives, as we said, of millions and millions of Americans.

  • Tom Harkin:

    Oh, just — she was a mentor to so many young women. She was also a feminist, so she got young women with disabilities to think of themselves in a different light.

    She was just a wonderful mentor to so many young people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Senator Tom Harkin, who worked with Marca Bristo, thank you for helping us remember her.

  • Tom Harkin:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Appreciate it. Thank you.

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