Women’s History Month: Meet Kathy Siska

SiskaWomen’s History Month – Kathy Siska

Kathy Siska, who has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair, was one of the first tenants at MAHO’s first property, Circle Vistas, 32 years ago. She’s turning 60 in December and explained that while she understands the limitations she has with cerebral palsy, she knows her body is aging, too. Kathy is most proud that she has lived independently—despite her struggles with disability and aging—since moving to Cleveland in 1984. Kathy has been a lifelong advocate in the disability rights community, working with a few different agencies, and participating in the Stop the Bus movement in the mid-1980’s.

Stop the Bus

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, people with disabilities didn’t have a lot of the rights that they have today, including access to public transportation. In the mid-1980’s, Kathy explained, although buses were equipped with wheelchair lift technology, it was not uncommon for a bus to pass up someone who needed to use the lift. Often, she said, bus drivers cited that the lift was broken, although, in many cases, it wasn’t.

In response to this inconsiderate treatment, people with disabilities organized in Cleveland’s Public Square to protest the injustice. Kathy was one of those people. She and her peers entered the street and “blocked off the whole square so that no buses could get in or out,” Kathy explained. For Kathy, the demonstration was powerful, yet enjoyable. For others, she remembered, it was more challenging because they were afraid to speak up. There was also a level of fear that the protesters would be run over by the buses. “It was somewhat of a risk, but I didn’t think we were going to get run over. It was a possibility, but it didn’t happen,” Kathy explained.

The Stop the Bus Movement, as it came to be known, changed public transportation for people with disabilities in Cleveland. The bus system, Kathy explained, learned that they had to stop and pick up people with disabilities, whether walking or rolling. The people’s voices were heard, and less than a decade later, the ADA created even more public transportation options for people with disabilities. Now, things are much easier for Kathy: she uses Paratransit, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s system specifically for people with disabilities.

An Advocate for Independence

Kathy’s participation in the Stop the Bus Movement catapulted her into other opportunities to advocate for accessibility and independence. She often talks to people with varying levels of ability about her independence and experience. Kathy worked with consumers at Linking Employment, Abilities and Potential (LEAP) and Services for Independent Living, Inc. (SIL). At both organizations, Kathy shared her experiences with consumers and helped them learn how to live independently with a disability. Today, as often as she can, she socializes with other tenants at her home, Cotman Vistas, and talks with them about her experiences with the Stop the Bus Movement,  her work at both LEAP and SIL, and, of course, her independence.

When we asked Kathy what her greatest accomplishment was, she knew her answer in a matter of seconds: her ability to live independently. As a lifelong wheelchair user, Kathy is proud that she’s lived on her own for the majority of her life. When she was in her mid-twenties, Kathy moved to Circle Vistas from Oberlin, Ohio, and has moved just once since then: to MAHO’s Cotman Vistas, which was designed with state-of-the-art accessibility and replaced Circle Vistas in 2013.

She’s watched Cleveland change, too. Kathy moved to University Circle about eight years before changes from the ADA started to happen. After 1990, she watched ramps, curb cuts, and other accessibility features pop up throughout Cleveland. “I’ll take you around Cleveland,” she said, laughing. Kathy loves to visit Tower City and Steelyard Commons, although she still believes the city has a long way to go for accessibility.

Choose Who You Are

“You can choose to be who you are,” Kathy explained when asked how being a woman has impacted her life, “I’m just like anybody else.” Kathy hasn’t let her disability status define her independence. “You can still be in a chair and be a person,” she said. And she has some advice for young women and people with disabilities: just keep being you and fight for what you can do. Take a page from Kathy’s book; had it not been for her fight to stop the bus, she might not have the independence she does today.

Kathy has chosen who she is. She’s a friend, joke-teller, woman, and fierce disability advocate. She’s proud of her ability to live independently and reminds others with disabilities that they can do the same. “You’re sitting, not standing,” she said, “and that’s the only difference.”

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