Access Living Names Karen Tamley CEO

Karen Tamley was named president and CEO of Access Living, Chicago’s Center for Independent Living, on Jan. 16. She succeeds disability rights icon and Access Living founder Marca Bristo, who died of cancer on September 8.

Over its 40-year history, Access Living’s impact and influence have spread far beyond Chicago. The CIL, which opened when the independent living movement was fledgling, is known for innovative programs that are often picked up by other CILs. In addition, it has been a national political force, pivotal in bringing about major disability-rights victories like the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Being appointed Access Living’s CEO is a homecoming for Tamley. In 2005, she was Bristo’s second in command as Access Living’s director of programs when then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed her commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. “It’s nice to feel I’m coming full circle,” says Tamley.

A Lifetime of Service

Born and raised in Northern California, Tamley was diagnosed at birth with caudal regression syndrome, which is essentially a malformation of the lower spine. “My mom was told I would never sit up or leave home,” she says.

Tamley graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 1989 and moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an assistant for disability rights lawyer Tim Cook, who died in 1991. This job led her to cross paths with ADAPT founder Wade Blank, who persuaded her to move to Denver and help him develop affordable, accessible housing. In 1996, Beto Barrera, a housing manager at Access Living and Chicago ADAPT activist until his recent retirement, hired Tamely to be Access Living’s housing policy coordinator. 

“I was one of the national leaders of ADAPT, planning strategy but also planning much of the logistics,” says Tamley. “It has helped me personally understand my own power as a person with a disability, and how our community can make systemic change. Protest is one of the many tools in the toolbox I believe we have as a community to challenge injustice.”

Tamley also says of her experience with ADAPT, “It taught me the ways in which the average person can work to make change. It has been a big influence in my life.” She met her husband, Kevin Irvine, who worked for a center for independent living in New Mexico, while leading an ADAPT workshop. They have a disabled daughter, Dominika, 14, whom they adopted as an infant. 

Tamley says she applied to be Access Living’s CEO because, ‘It was a great opportunity to build on the legacy that Marca built over the past 40 years. She was a friend and a mentor, and I have so much respect for the work she did, for her commitment to the community. It is a huge honor and privilege.”

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