Marilyn Saviola, Disability Rights Advocate, Is Dead at 74

By Neil Genzlinger
Dec. 1, 2019

In 1955 polio left Marilyn Saviola in a wheelchair. It also started her on a lifelong fight to change perceptions and break down real-world obstacles.

Marilyn E. Saviola, who after childhood polio left her a quadriplegic spent much of her adult life advocating for people with disabilities, pushing for the removal of both the physical barriers and the attitudes that hinder people like her from fully participating in society, died on Nov. 23 at her home in Brooklyn. She was 74.

Ms. Saviola joined the battle for the rights of people with disabilities back when it was still relatively new, while in college in the late 1960s. She was executive director of the advocacy group Center for the Independence of the Disabled in New York from 1983 to 1999 and then spent the next 20 years with Independence Care System, running its advocacy and women’s health program.

Those roles put her in the midst of the push for obvious accommodations like curb cuts in sidewalks and less obvious ones like financing for personal aides for people who need help dressing, bathing and getting in and out of wheelchairs. Over the years her wide range of activities included blocking buses in her wheelchair in transportation-related protests and organizing a singing group for people with disabilities.

This past summer she was honored at the opening of a newly renovated radiology unit at NYC Health & Hospitals/Gotham Health in the Morrisania section of the Bronx that typifies her impact. The new unit, equipped with lifts, movable examination tables and a modified mammography machine, is designed to make it easier for women who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities to receive mammograms and obstetric and gynecological care.

“Marilyn Saviola’s steadfast advocacy has ensured that the needs of the disability community are at the forefront of health care policy discussions,” Victor Calise, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, said at the time.

For Ms. Saviola, such services and facilities were a civil right on a par with those fought for by black people and women.

“Our goal is not to get to the front of the bus,” she told The New York Times in 1997, “it is to make government pay for technology to get us on the bus.”

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