Marilyn Saviola is part of the “greatest generation” of civil rights advocates who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s and reshaped our expectations of what formerly marginalized populations could achieve. At age 10, Marilyn contracted polio and was hospitalized for two months in an iron lung. When she was able to breathe on her own with a portable ventilator, she was transferred to Goldwater Memorial Hospital for 18 months, then returned home.

Dissatisfied with her isolated home life, at 16 Marilyn urged her parents to let her return to Goldwater, where she would at least be around people. Goldwater was also less than ideal for a teenager, but Marilyn soon changed that, joining forces with other younger residents to demand a young people’s ward. The new ward was a homelike setting with a rec room, a kitchen and a staff in civilian clothes. Residents went on outings, learned to take risks and make mistakes, and became self-realized adults.

Marilyn wanted to attend college but was denied support from State Vocational Rehabilitation, which deemed her unemployable. With intervention from Senator Jacob Javits, she was granted a semester tryout at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus and stayed, graduating in 1970. She went on to graduate studies at New York University. At both schools, she was faced with barriers – physical and otherwise – and her relentless efforts to break them down benefited generations of future students.

After graduation, Marilyn spent 11 years as a rehabilitation counselor at Goldwater. Her impact on young residents and their families was immeasurable, as she promoted a positive professional image and debunked many preconceived attitudes toward people with disabilities. In 1975, the city proposed closing Goldwater, and Marilyn organized a protest at City Hall. It worked; the facility stayed open.

In 1983, Marilyn became executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY) and moved to her own apartment. Her struggles to obtain the home care she needed led her to become a leader of the groundbreaking new group Concepts of Independence, which was instrumental in transforming home care into a consumer-controlled model. Marilyn’s leadership contributed to the passage of state legislation to make Consumer Directed Personal Assistance (CDPA) permanent and a mandatory option.

In 1998, Marilyn became senior vice president for advocacy at Independence Care System, which coordinates a range of home care, health care and social services to enable people to live independently. In this role, she intervenes on behalf of members who face crises in negotiating the systems that impact their lives.

In 2008 Marilyn started the ICS Health Access Program for Women With Physical Disabilities, to help women get the preventive, gender-specific health services they need, such as breast and cervical cancer screenings. Thanks to her efforts, these services are now widely available in New York, and the effort will broaden to include accessible primary care benefiting both women and men.

Marilyn Saviola’s six decades of advocacy have impacted the lives of individuals with disabilities in myriad ways, and she has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.