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Remembering a Powerful Voice in the Disability Rights Movement

Human Rights Watch Mourns the Passing of Marca Bristo

Marca Bristo, President of Access Living, speaks at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilites Act in Washington, Monday, July 26, 2010. © 2010 AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

It is with deep sadness that we mourn the passing of Marca Bristo, tireless partner to and supporter of Human Rights Watch’s Disability Rights program. To me and so many around the world, Marca was a true force of nature; a fierce advocate, visionary thinker, incredible mentor, and kind friend. She died Monday at the age of 66.

Marca dedicated her life to pushing for the rights of people with disabilities in the United States and abroad. And she left her mark: from playing a key role in the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act to founding Access Living in Chicago, to influencing other countries’ efforts on equality, inclusion and independent living for people with disabilities.

Marca Bristo at the Chicago Disability Pride Parade, 2017. © 2017 Access Living

I first met Marca during negotiations on the United Nations disability rights treaty in New York. She quickly became a mentor and ally. When Marca spoke, you listened because she asked the tough and necessary questions. She embodied the disability community’s motto: “Nothing about us, without us.” She was extraordinary.

When I joined Human Rights Watch nearly 10 years ago, I knew we needed a strong group of advisers, particularly experts with disabilities, to steer our new work on disability rights. I knew we needed Marca.

From the start, Marca demanded that we not only advocate for inclusion and accessibility but practice it ourselves. Marca was instrumental in pushing Human Rights Watch to hire more staff with disabilities, make our offices more accessible, and develop a reasonable accommodations policy. Human Rights Watch benefitted a great deal from her wise counsel, dogged questions, and steadfast encouragement – and so did I, both professionally and personally. “I’m proud of you, kiddo,” she told me during one of our last phone calls.

It meant all that much more when she called me some time ago to share that Human Rights Watch would be the recipient of Access Living’s 2019 Lead On! Award for the empowerment, inclusion and independence of people with disabilities. I felt like a student being recognized by her master teacher. And on the evening of the gala, it was clear we were celebrating all that Marca had taught us.

My thoughts go out to Marca’s family and the many people around the world whose lives she touched. As we continue our fight for the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities, with their voices at the forefront, Marca’s legacy lives on.

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