Category Archive: Blog


ADA 25 Chicago has come to a close, but we invite you to visit The Chicago Community Trust’s page dedicated to this initiative for more ADA 25 Chicago-related stories.


Sunday, July 26, marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): landmark civil rights legislation that drastically improved the lives of people with disabilities throughout the U.S.

In 2011, the Hill Foundation—a nonprofit created by Thea Flaum and her husband Robert Hill in an effort to help other families like theirs—launched to connect families who suddenly have to deal with a spinal cord injury with people who have experienced similar situations.

The website contains 1,500 high-quality HD videos of people with spinal cord injuries and members of their families answering real-life questions about how they cope. Interviews with medical experts on important spinal cord injury topics are also on the website, as well as extensive information on resources.

The Chicago Community Trust sat down with Thea Flaum, president of the Hill Foundation and ADA 25 Chicago steering committee member, to talk about philanthropy and why helping others in your community matters.

Q: When did you start giving back? Tell us about your first experience with giving or receiving.

A: I was a television producer for more than 30 years. Seven years ago, after I sold my production company, my husband and I decided that we wanted to do something for people who been affected by spinal cord injuries. Our oldest child is a C-5/6 quadriplegic, which means she has a spinal cord injury that resulted in the total loss of movement and sensation below her neck and shoulders. Her story is extremely positive—but we knew that it was a very, very long hard road and it struck us that it would be good to do something for families who are dealing with what we went through. For a family, it can be an isolating experience.

The idea was to have people answer questions about what they learned, what they did and what worked for them while going through the process of living with a spinal cord injury that might be helpful to someone else. The goal being that everyone would find someone they could relate to. As it turns out, finding someone exactly like you doesn’t really matter, the answers to the questions and the issues of coping are personal and universal.

Q: What inspires or motivates you to do good for others?

A: I was raised that way; my parents were both very conscious of giving back. There has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t giving back in some form, both financially and with my time. It seems to me that doing good for others is part of who you are in a world where there is a need of your resources and talents.

Q: How has giving changed the way you think about receiving help from others?

A: I used to think that I was a person who was fortunate to not need help from others. But it is not always a matter of need; it’s a matter of accepting with grace something that somebody else wants to do for you. I don’t think I understood that as well as I do now and it makes you appreciate things more, and allows you to be a gracious receiver as well as a gracious giver.

Q: How do you think giving creates stronger communities?

A: There’s no question—I think that one of the reasons Chicago is an exceptionally good and giving city is that people in Chicago feel they must, if they can, get involved and try to help to do something for the community. I don’t mean only donating money, giving your time is just as important—and I think Chicagoans feel an obligation to do that, to be involved. That shared sense of “let’s do something to make this better” is what makes the City so strong.

Q: You are a philanthropist—what advice do you have for others who want to do good?

A: The most important thing is to focus on organizations, causes or ideas for which you feel passionate about. For me, it’s disability rights. If the theater or opera or children are important to you, find a way to get involved in doing something good for others in that area. You’ll meet other people who share that same passion and it will enrich your life enormously.

Thea Flaum bio pic

Thea Flaum, President of the Hill Foundation, is the creative leader of the She comes to the foundation after a 35-year-career as an Emmy-award-winning television producer. So it’s no surprise that she created a website that took what she knew about the power of video and used it to connect families who suddenly have to deal with a spinal cord injury with people like them who have “been there” and “done that.”

This article was originally posted on the Chicago Community Trust website, and can be viewed by clicking here.


“Growing up in foster care, I always wondered: how had I become disconnected from my parents? Why? Who are they?”

It wasn’t until he was an adult that Steve Pemberton, vice president and global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, read his foster care case file and found that his mother had been told her kids would be taken until she got—and kept—a job. The long and the short of the story is she never did get that job, and she never saw her kids again.

From that case file, Pemberton learned that his mother was in a losing battle with an undiagnosed depressive condition, which likely precluded her from ever meeting the job expectations of the foster care agency. If her condition had been diagnosed, it would now be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but at the time—before the ADA became law—she would not have been protected from discrimination.

Did those circumstances have a direct effect on her inability to hold a job, and ultimately, her inability to care for her children? And were employers partly to blame, for their failure to see her potential beyond these perceived barriers?

Today, Pemberton is dedicated to combating the historical—and still extremely prevalent—challenges of access to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Signed into law in 1990 and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the ADA protects people with any kind of disability, visible or invisible, to ensure equality of inclusion. But there is still more work to be done to fulfill the ADA’s promise of full participation and economic self-sufficiency.

“We need to evolve the narrative and explain to other employers the value of the perspective, loyalty, resilience and diversity that people with disabilities bring to the workforce,” said Pemberton.

It is important, Pemberton says, that employers look past the perceived obstacles involved with employing people with disabilities and concentrate on the possibilities. To help other companies with this shift in focus and breakdown of perceived barriers, Walgreens regularly meets with and gives tours of its facilities and training centers to show other companies first-hand the integration of people with and without disabilities working alongside each other—and just as efficiently, if not more so.

Beyond his work at Walgreens, Steve is also the chairman of the US Business Leadership Network—a national nonprofit that helps business drive performance by leveraging disability inclusion in the workplace, supply chain and marketplace. As part of this year’s anniversary of the ADA, Steve and ADA 25 Chicago are putting energy behind creating a Chicago chapter of the organization, the Chicago Business Leadership Network (CBLN). In having a local, peer network of employers focused on learning from each other about successful ways to sustainably increase inclusion, and implementing strategies to do so, CBLN aims to inspire and empower companies to increase rates of employment for people with disabilities.

Since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act 25 years ago, there has been much progress in leveling the playing fields for inclusion and access for people with disabilities. But there are still inequalities and more work to be done, particularly in the areas of employment and education, and Pemberton believes this is where we need to focus moving forward.

ADA 25 Chicago is helping to broaden and deepen the advances made over the past 25 years. As a city, Chicago has an opportunity to be a leading voice in catalyzing improved access and inclusion moving forward—because, to Steve Pemberton, it is important to recognize the generational impacts of these qualities on families, children and loved ones. Had his mother been recognized for her abilities instead of discriminated against for her perceived inabilities, perhaps he would have some memory of her today.

Steve Pemberton bio pic

In addition to Steve Pemberton’s role as Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, which is a national and longstanding leader in employing people with disabilities, he is also a Steering Committee Co-Chair of ADA 25 Chicago; Chair of the US Business Leadership Network, a nonprofit helping business drive performance by leveraging disability inclusion in the workplace, supply chain and marketplace; and a published author.

This article was originally posted on the Chicago Community Trust website, and can be viewed by clicking here.


By: Daniel X. O’Neil, Executive Director for Smart Chicago

I was a teenager in the 1980’s and remember disability activists taking over bus routes and rolling in front of buses in acts of civil disobedience. There was one specific time when I was waiting to get on a bus and activists blocked it from leaving the stop. It was an astounding personal experience for me to witness; they were using the same methods of protests from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and many other human rights movements throughout the world.

I have always been interested in civic data and how government agencies interact with residents. Throughout my career as a technologist, I’ve done a lot work with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) around transit apps, focusing on bus tracking technology. In 2005, I started a rider-to-rider communications system called CTA Alerts that allowed riders to communicate route updates with each other via text, which the CTA helped to implement.

Through my work with the CTA, I became aware of a connection between the data used for bus tracking technologies and a lawsuit filed by Access Living in 2000 against the CTA to provide equal access to people with disabilities on its trains and buses. The consent decree filed with the federal government required bus drivers to call out audibly every single bus stop, which worked… but wasn’t optimal.

The CTA came up with a better method: the Global Positioning System (GPS) for buses in order to determine where the bus was and signal an automated machine announcement of every stop. That system is now the basis for every single transit app and transit data innovation in the United States. I wish there wasn’t a 20-year gap between technologists’ understanding of the needs of people with disabilities and the implementation of technology that addresses the basic human rights those activists I witnessed years earlier were fighting for.

When it comes to technology, we see again and again that there is no difference between accessibility, usability and good product design. Technologies like Cascading Style Sheets, which set the basic rules for the display of web pages, and swipe technology that allows a user to continue to type on their cell phone without lifting their finger off the screen, started out as innovations meant for people with disabilities but are useful to everyone. Describing technology as “accessible” and thinking that it is only designed for people with disabilities is an artificial distinction. Creating accessible technology makes it better for everyone.

Because in order to fulfill our mission of improving lives in Chicago through technology, we must think about all Chicagoans. What really matters is that we embed the principles of serving everyone into everything we do; people with disabilities happen to fall into the certain subset of human beings that is everyone. That is the way Smart Chicago thinks about our work—not as doing accessibility work, but as serving the greater community.

That’s why we—Smart Chicago—are partnering with ADA 25 Chicago, which is leveraging the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in Chicago in four key areas: education, employment, community inclusion and technology. Technology, in particular, has played a crucial role in the first 25 years since the ADA, and everyone in Chicago has benefited from the innovations it’s brought about—though they may not realize it.

Dan O'Neil bio pic

Daniel X. O’Neil is the Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to making lives better in Chicago through technology.

Prior to the Smart Chicago, O’Neil was a co-founder of and People Person for EveryBlock, a neighborhood news and discussion site serving 16 cities. He was responsible for uncovering new data sets through online research and working with local governments. In August 2009 EveryBlock was purchased by After acquisition, O’Neil ran Business Development for EveryBlock, working on advertising, content partnerships, and integration with the core site. During this time period, O’Neil participated in the open data/ open government movement, advising governments and candidates on policy.

Prior to EveryBlock, O’Neil spent 10 years as an Internet strategist and project manager for Streams Online Media, one of the first web design firms in Chicago. He continued this work at Dunn Solutions Group after their purchase of Streams in 2001, with a focus on technology requirements training and the development of Web-based tools for training, e-commerce, and content management. He also created a number of sites for municipalities, including the first Web site for the Chicago Inspector General, the person in charge of rooting out corruption in Chicago city government.

Since 2002 he’s run a number of independent Web projects, including CTA Alerts/ CTA Tweet and He’s developed dozens of Web sites for nonprofits, schools, and small businesses using easy-to-use and inexpensive tools such as weblogs, wikis, and social networking sites. In June of 2011 he was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for Technology and Innovation.

O’Neil has a degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

This article was originally posted on the Chicago Community Trust website, and can be viewed by clicking here.


According to the World Health Organization, mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the millions of Americans living with these “invisible” illnesses from discrimination, just like it ensures the rights of people with more visible disabilities.

But according to Mark Ishaug, the CEO of Thresholds, one of Illinois’ largest providers of healthcare services for persons with mental illness, “Those with a hidden disability like mental illness are often forgotten when we talk about disability.”

“Since one in four Americans is personally affected by a mental health challenge at some point in their lives, it’s pretty clear that we all need the protection and access to employment and economic self-sufficiency promised by this civil rights law.” This is why Ishaug and Thresholds advocate for the ADA 25 Chicago theme and goal of recognizing disability as a natural part of the human experience.

In addition to his role at Thresholds, Ishaug serves on the steering committee of ADA 25 Chicago, a regional partner network of more than 160 organizations dedicated to advancing access and inclusion for people with disabilities to commemorate this year’s 25th anniversary of the ADA.

Ishaug is also a founding member of the Kennedy Forum Illinois, which was founded last year to end stigma against mental health and substance abuse disorders.

“We need to change the hearts and minds of people living in Illinois to truly understand the implications of mental illness, because stigma, and the effects associated with it, are killing people,” said Ishaug.

Ishaug’s passion for unveiling the hidden truth about invisible disabilities, including mental illness, is both professional and personal. He lost a brother and numerous friends and colleagues to battles with mental illness.

The Kennedy Forum, which brings together a cross-sector group of leaders from all industries, aims to address stigma in the media, at work, in schools and even within families. According to a recent statewide survey by The Forum, roughly one-third of adults with mental health conditions feel they have been treated unfairly because of their condition, either at work, when looking for housing or in the healthcare system. Yet social stigma—and the accompanying fear of rejection, discrimination and being ostracized—are huge barriers to getting the protection they need because it would require self-disclosure of their disability.

“The fight to end the stigma and improve access and inclusion for people with mental health challenges is so broad—conditions vary significantly in gravity and visibility—and the consequences of stigma are great,” said Ishaug. “At the Kennedy Forum, we are working to educate and change the conversation around mental health in all its forms.”

To leverage the 25th anniversary year of the ADA, Ishaug is championing commitments from Thresholds, the Kennedy Forum and others to help increase awareness and advance inclusion and accessibility for all people with disabilities, but particularly those with serious mental health conditions.

“It is vital to ensure that the mental health community is represented in efforts to realize, improve and expand upon the promises made by the ADA,” said Ishaug. “If we, as ADA 25 Chicago and as a City, hope to ensure everyone with disabilities live full and independent lives, we must remember people with disabilities that we cannot see often face discrimination and that the battle to overcome stigma is just another frontier of civil rights.”

Mark Ishaug bio pic

Mark Ishaug’s 25 years of leadership in healthcare advocacy and service provision have centered on building public/private partnerships and dismantling stigma and discrimination among vulnerable populations. During his tenure at Thresholds, the agency has grown from 900 to 1200 employees, and the number of persons served has increased 17% from 6,100 to 7,145. As mental health services are now bolstered by more effective services that include community interventions and coordinated healthcare in addition to life-changing medications, Ishaug’s work is focused on bringing mental health policy in line with clinical best practices. At a time of historical opportunity for Illinois behavioral healthcare, he has established Thresholds as a leader in shaping housing, Medicaid managed care, and other policies that will create a better mental health safety net for our most vulnerable citizens.

This article was originally posted on the Chicago Community Trust website, and can be viewed by clicking here.


By: Rachel Arfa

As a deaf person, when listening to music, the first thing I do is turn up the bass, making it easier for me to feel the beat. In high school, Japanese drummers performed at my school, making loud banging sounds on their gigantic, larger than life drums. I loved listening to the beat as it reverberated in my chest. So began my interest in drums.

In college, I began taking drum lessons from a friend who was a drummer in a band. I learned how to play 1/8th and 1/4th notes, practicing at home on pillows in between sessions to get the rhythm down. I was beginning to understand how music was structured; and perhaps I was inspired by Evelyn Glennie, an impressive international percussionist with a hearing loss, who often plays barefoot so she can feel the vibration of the music.

Technology has increased the ability for everyone to enjoy music. Lyrics to popular songs are readily available via Google. Captioned music videos on YouTube make it easier to match the lyrics with a live performance. Some people use a neck loop allowing one to use their hearing aids or cochlear implant, establishing a direct and clear connection to their iPhone or laptop that eliminates all background noise to maximize the music experience. When you cannot identify the song, popular apps like Shazam, Soundhound and Musixmatch detect the name of a song playing in a room and have lyrics available. One friend who is deaf memorizes lyrics to her favorite song, listening to the song over and over again to match the pace of the lyrics, and then adds the song to her Pandora account so she can practice recognizing the song when it plays.

In our post-ADA world, many concerts now provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, which provide visual access to the music being performed; and, at many concerts, a video of an ASL interpreter goes viral. For example, Timeout Chicago named ASL interpreters one of the best elements of Lollapalooza this year. Mainstream songs are often performed in ASL. Deaf rapper Sean Forbes has performed across the country and internationally using spoken language, sign language and displays his lyrics onscreen for concertgoers.

For a number of reasons, my music interest lay dormant for many years, until I was accepted into Fear Experiment – a group that would perform a stepping routine with twenty strangers in front of a sold out audience of 750 people at Park West. As I learned the steps, I thought I had mastered the movement. Then, I realized that each step made noise, and I could not hear the step/clap/step movement my co-performers were making. Back to square one. I re-traced each movement, making sure to inquire at each point what type of sound I had to make—a step, swipe, step, clap, step. I practiced these movements with my group, going to extra practices to ensure I had the dance down. I worried I would hit the wrong beat.  But, the night of the performance was thrilling – and we stepped, clapped, stepped all in unison to the sound of our beats.

Tonight’s performance of Beethoven Violin Concerto at Grant Park Music Festival is a reminder of everyone’s ability to contribute to, and enjoy the musical world. Beethoven, who became hard of hearing at age 26, spent the majority of his life creating music that changed our world forever.

Rachel Arfa Bio pic

Rachel Arfa is a staff attorney and PABSS Project Manager at Equip for Equality, where she represents clients with disabilities in employment discrimination and civil rights violations. She is a member of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) Steering Committee, which helped to develop and is leading the ADA25 Chicago 25 for 25 Cultural Access Project. Rachel has been named a Fellow for the 2016 class of Leadership Greater Chicago. Previously, Rachel was employed as Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. She is a 2007 graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Law and a 2000 graduate of the University of Michigan.


By: Marca Bristo, President and CEO, Access Living

Twenty-five years ago, on July 26, 1990, 2,000 people with disabilities gathered on the South Lawn of the White House for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signing ceremony. The jubilant crowd heard President George H. W. Bush proclaim the often quoted words, “I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

At the time of the ADA signing, I had just given birth to my daughter, Maddy. While I was not able to be on the South Lawn with so many of my friends and colleagues, I celebrated the historic event in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley, who committed to making Chicago the most accessible city in the country, hosted a local event. On that day at the White House, in Chicago and around the country, disability advocates felt as if, finally, we had done it. We passed a landmark civil rights law that would allow people with disabilities to participate in their communities and pursue employment opportunities on a level playing field. We did what so many told us couldn’t be done.

Though we accomplished a monumental feat, nothing about passage of the law was easy. There were barriers at every step. Despite the fact that there were no curb cuts, there was no access to bathrooms, there was no interstate TTY system of communication for people who were Deaf and hard of hearing, there was no emergency captioning and employers were free to discriminate based upon disability, Congress did not believe there was a history of discrimination. Without a history of discrimination, there would be no law.

Mobilizing the disability community, Justin Dart, Jr., vice chair of the National Council on Disability and the Martin Luther King of the disability rights movement, issued a call to action. Dart urged us to tell the world what discrimination looks like. Dart and his wife Yoshiko traveled around all 50 states collecting individual stories of discrimination. The community answered the call, giving Justin three large trash bags worth of testimonials, which he delivered during his testimony to Congress. As former Congressman Tony Coehlo said, in order to establish a record of discrimination, “We had to share the scar tissue of our lives, so Congress would understand how rampant discrimination was across our lives.”

In many ways, the law has changed the world. My daughter, just a few days old at the time Bush signed the law, has never known a world without the accessibility features we all now take for granted. Millions of young people with and without disabilities have grown up in a world without the physical barriers that separate us. Today, people with and without disabilities are riding the same buses, shopping at the same retail stores, drawing money from the same ATM machines and watching movies in the same theaters, making the world a better place for everyone.

The law has had enormous impact, but we can never take for granted the success we have achieved. Budget cuts, backlash and stigma all threaten to dismantle the rights everyone has come to expect. In 1999 and the early 2000s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions removed a range of people with disabilities from ADA coverage, people that were included under the original intent of the law. All of these things remind us that the access, accommodations and opportunity we fought for could easily be dismantled.

Similarly, while there has been success, the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act has not been realized in many ways. Just as millions of young people have never known a world without screen readers and bus lifts, they also have never known a world without catastrophically high unemployment rates for people with disabilities (in 2013, less than 20 percent of the working age disable population was employed), without significant achievement gaps between disabled and non-disabled students and without unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities.

In 1990, many people played a pivotal role to get the law passed. Champions like Pat Wright, Congressman Tony Coehlo, Senator Tom Harkin, Senator Kennedy, Congressman Owens, Sylvia Walker, Michael Winter, Judy Heumann. Frank Bowe, Elizabeth Boggs, Lex Friedan, Bob Bergdorf, Chai Feldblum, Max Starkloff, Judi Chamberlin, Bonnie O’Day and many more. This year, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we need new champions who will lead the way toward the unfinished promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today’s children need to grow up in a world where people with disabilities have the opportunity to find work and to be successful at work, people with disabilities have the option to live with quality supports in affordable, accessible homes in integrated communities and people with psycho-social disabilities live in a world free of stigma.

The anniversary gives us a platform to bring varied segments of our community together for a common goal. In Chicago, under the banner of ADA 25 Chicago, more than 160 organizations from the private, public and non-profit sector have committed to leveraging this 25th anniversary year to create more opportunities and make systemic change in education, employment, technology and community inclusion. With commitment initiatives like this in Chicago and around the country, I am confident that the full promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act will happen. Today, there is the expectation that students with disabilities will learn alongside their non-disabled peers, commuters with disabilities will ride the bus with non-disabled passengers and public spaces will be built to be accessible by all using Universal Design.

Around the world, the Americans with Disabilities Act is the model other countries follow when building a system of human rights protections for people with disabilities. The implementation, enforcement and model of the law has launched a paradigm shift with momentum that will not be reversed. This year, and in years to come, we will ride that momentum, filling in the gaps that still exist, fighting against the barriers that remain, ensuring that the promise of the law applies to all people with disabilities and extends to all sectors of society.

This blog post was originally posted on the Blog, and can be viewed by clicking here.

Marca Bristo

For more than 30 years, Marca Bristo and Access Living, Chicago’s center for independent living, have helped craft local, national and international reforms to protect the rights of people with disabilities and equip them with tools to lead independent, satisfying lifestyles. A pioneer of Chicago’s disability rights movement and a former patient of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Bristo helped launch Access Living, one of the country’s first ten centers for independent living. Since 1980, Access Living has provided peer services and advocacy to over 40,000 people with disabilities, and it has won systemic improvements in housing public schools, public transportation, public access and long-term care.

Beyond Access Living, Bristo is an international advocate for the rights of disabled individuals. During the 1980s, as a member of the Congressionally-appointed United States Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities, she helped draft and win passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1994, President Clinton appointed Bristo to head the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that provides policy guidance to the U.S. President and Congress. Bristo was the first person with a disability to hold this position. Bristo is also former President of the United States International Council on Disabilities, a federation of U.S. disability organizations committed to fostering Disability Awareness inclusion and rights overseas.

For her dedication and perseverance, Bristo received the Distinguished Service Award of the President of the United States and the Americans with Disabilities Act Award for her role in the creation and passage of the law. She was named a Henry B. Betts Laureate for significantly improving the quality of life for people with disabilities and earned the 1993 United Way of Chicago Executive of the Year Award. Ms. Bristo also was named by Crain’s Chicago Business as one of Chicago’s 100 Most Influential Women. The Chicago Sun-Times included Bristo on its list of 100 Most Powerful Women, and was on the list of Today’s Chicago Woman 100 Women Making a Difference. Other awards include: IMPACT Award Recipient, Chicago Foundation for Women, 2010; BPI 40 Who Have Made a Difference, 2009; and Chicagoan of the Year, Chicago Magazine, 2007.

Bristo is a Trustee of Rush University, a Life Member of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a member of The Chicago Network and a Leadership Greater Chicago Alumni. She earned a B.A. from Beloit College and a B.S. in Nursing from Rush University.


By: Michelle Boone, Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Karen Tamley, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

This weekend, as they have for the past 30 years, thousands of Chicago-area residents will fill Grant Park to listen to renowned and up-and-coming artists from across the country during Chicago’s Blues Festival. From picnic blankets and accessible seating, festival attendees will listen and watch performances on stages both large and small. But this year, as part of a citywide initiative to commemorate and leverage the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) has implemented a variety of initiatives to ensure that all people are equally equipped to enjoy the weekend.

More than one in 10 Illinoisans have some kind of disability – whether that disability is apparent, such as a vision or mobility impairment, or invisible, such as hearing loss or mental illness – we all have people with disabilities in our lives. From doctors and teachers to friends, colleagues, neighbors, family members, celebrities, public officials and more – disability is a natural part of the human experience.

The ADA is a civil rights milestone that ensures people with disabilities have equal rights to pursue personal, educational and professional ambitions and to participate fully in public life. In Chicago, a yearlong initiative called ADA 25 Chicago is bringing together more than 150 partners from the private, public, institutional and not-for-profit sectors to both celebrate progress made under the ADA over the past 25 years and to make longstanding commitments to expanding access and opportunity for people with disabilities throughout metropolitan Chicago.

The City of Chicago and DCASE were among ADA 25 Chicago’s first partners, with a firm commitment to improving accommodations for people with disabilities at many of Chicago’s festivals and events—including Blues and Jazz Fests this summer. Improvements will include more accessible seating, better sight lines and accessible routes through lawn areas; increased sign language interpretation and reserved seating for people who need access to the sign interpreter; more assistive listening devices; Braille programs; bathrooms and hand washing stations more prominent and accessible for people with disabilities; designated drop off and pick up areas for people with disabilities with direct access to the seating area; and disability etiquette training for permanent and festival staff. Both the Blues and Jazz Fests will also feature legendary performers with disabilities, including Clarence Carter, Henry Butler and Bobby Hutcherson.

These efforts to expand inclusion for people with disabilities in the life and work of our city are intended make Chicago more accessible and inclusive for everyone. We hope that Chicagoland residents will utilize and maximize the ADA’s 25th anniversary year to truly think about and act on the ways in which we can all promote greater inclusiveness for people with disabilities and disability accommodations in our everyday lives. We are greater together.

DCASE Commissioner Michelle Boone Bio pic

Michelle T. Boone is the Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), which presents and promotes high-quality free festivals, exhibitions, performances and holiday celebrations each year in parks, the historic Chicago Cultural Center, and other venues throughout the city. She was appointed to the post by Mayor Rahm Emanuel May 2011.

During her inaugural year as Commissioner, Michelle led the ambitious process for crafting a new Chicago Cultural Plan; it was released October 2012. The Plan includes over 240 initiatives to support 10 key priorities to guide Chicago’s cultural future. Michelle frequently does public speaking to share the Chicago Cultural Plan with municipalities across the globe.

Prior to her post as Commissioner, Michelle was the Senior Program Officer for Culture at the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, and prior to that was the director of Gallery 37, an award-winning job-training in the arts program for Chicago youth. Her professional career began in entertainment working in television, film, and the recording industry, and later she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad, Africa. Michelle holds a bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications and a master’s degree in Public Affairs (nonprofit management major) from Indiana University, Bloomington.

MOPD Commissioner Karen Tamley Bio pic

Karen Tamley was named Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) in March of 2005 by Richard M. Daley and reppointed by Mayor Rahm Emaunel in May of 2011.   MOPD promotes full inclusion of people with all types of disabilities and strives to make Chicago the most accessible city in the nation.

In her role as Commissioner, Ms. Tamley leads numerous disability policy and accessibility compliance initiatives in key areas such as transportation, city infrastructure, emergency preparedness, housing, schools and technology. She also oversees the delivery of independent living services such as in-home supports, home accessibility modifications, amplified phones, and employment readiness to thousands of Chicagoans with disabilities. Commissioner Tamley serves as the City’s representative regarding disability related policy on a number of boards and committees, including the Pace Board of Directors, the region’s Paratransit service provider.

Under Commissioner Tamley’s leadership, Chicago received the Accessible America Award from the National Organization on Disability and for two years, MOPD was named “Best Government Department” by the Deaf Illinois.

For 15 years prior to her appointment, Tamley served in management, policy and advocacy roles at disability organizations in Washington D.C., Denver and Chicago. Prior to her appointment as Commissioner, she was the Director of Programs at Access Living a center for advocacy and services for people with disabilities in Chicago.

Commissioner Tamley earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley


By: Emily Harris, Executive Director, ADA 25 Chicago

This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 25. It’s a powerful moment to celebrate the civil rights achievements of the past quarter century. Even more important, this year will be a catalyst for fulfilling the ADA’s promise of full participation in American society.

It’s my privilege to help create a platform for Chicago’s leadership to take action. While other cities are celebrating this anniversary, we are told over and over that the scope of our regional ADA 25 Chicago initiative is unique. Chicago is truly the city of “no little plans,” and once again we are demonstrating that diverse leaders are committed to solving problems and eliminating barriers.

This blog will feature numerous authors, each shining a spotlight on the issues we face and actions we want to inspire during this anniversary year. For our first post, I want to amplify our tag line:

We are greater together

Disability touches all of us. Whether apparent, or invisible, we are all connected to disability. After all, the disability community is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time. And as our population ages, our numbers are growing.

Many of us don’t even think of ourselves as having a disability, but if we need the ADA it’s there for us. I’m a case in point. When a sinus infection left me with permanent hearing loss, I didn’t think of it as a disability. But now, by identifying my disability, I am empowered to ask for accommodations if I need them, using the ADA as my tool. The same goes for my husband, who takes medication for chronic depression. And for my mother, who has limited mobility due to arthritis and other conditions – in fact she benefits every day from the bus lifts and curb cuts that the ADA brought us.

When we recognize that people with disabilities are our parents, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, teachers, leaders – and ourselves – we all begin to think and act differently.

The ADA’s premise is that we all have a fundamental right to equal opportunity, and that means changing the world to make it work for as many of us as possible. That is what ADA 25 Chicago is all about.

Fulfilling the Promise for the Next 25 Years

While it’s time to celebrate the dramatic changes the ADA brought to our sidewalks, stores, trains, buses, public buildings, communications systems and more, there is still much to be done. People with disabilities still have double the poverty rate and twice the unemployment rate compared with those without disabilities. We face stigma and other barriers to full participation every day.

Together, we can and must tackle these issues. Halfway through this anniversary year, Chicago is responding to this challenge with creativity and commitment.

For example, more than 25 cultural institutions are pledging to increase their accessibility this year and in the future. Businesses are stepping up to join the Chicagoland Chamber’s new Business Leadership Network, which encourages workplaces, market places and supply chains to get a competitive advantage by fully including people with disabilities. The region’s mayors are asking all 273 communities in our seven-county region what they are doing about inclusion, and will be highlighting best practices. And that’s just a start.

We invite everyone to participate. Start this summer at Blues Fest on June 12 when we will celebrate the ADA’s anniversary with a performance by Clarence Carter. On June 24, come to the City Club of Chicago to hear Senator Tom Harkin speak about why he wrote this landmark legislation. On July 18, join the Disability Pride Parade. That same day, developers will be convening in a Hackathon at Motorola Mobility to find technology solutions that overcome barriers to inclusion.

See our calendar and program partner pages for more events and commitments. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And join us in asking everyone you know what they are doing to advance inclusion in their own wheelhouse.

We will come together in November to announce the legacies and commitments made as a result of ADA 25 Chicago and ask everyone in our region to continue the momentum. Don’t wait until then – if you haven’t, start planning and participating now. We want to celebrate your commitment in the fall. It’s important for all of us.

We are greater together.

Emily Harris bio photo

Emily Harris joined the Chicago Community Trust in June 2014 to serve as Executive Director of ADA 25 Chicago. She is working with ADA 25 Chicago’s Honorary and Steering Committees to leverage the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act to advance full participation of people with disabilities in metropolitan Chicago. ADA 25 Chicago has more than 150 program partners who are raising awareness of the impact of this civil rights legislation and taking action to expand inclusion.

Emily is also Principal of Harris Strategies, LLC, which specializes in strategic planning and creating large-scale civic initiatives for non-profit organizations and public agencies. She was formerly Vice President of Metropolis Strategies (previously called Chicago Metropolis 2020) where she led research and policy programs in regional economic growth, open space conservation and early childhood education. From 2006 to 2009 she was Executive Director of the Burnham Plan Centennial, which convened hundreds of partner organizations around a celebration of regional planning focused on shaping a better future for the Chicago region.

Past positions include program director for Leadership Greater Chicago, Principal of Emily J. Harris Consulting, Executive Director of the Canal Corridor Association, and Vice President of ActiveLife Retirement Communities. Emily has a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. in urban studies from the University of Chicago.