accessible nyc

Accessible NYC – A Q&A with Victor Calise, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

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I hadn’t spoken with Victor Calise in a number of years; I knew him when he worked for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and there, he was working on projects to improve access for people with disabilities to visit parks and participate in recreation programs. In the current mayoral administration he’s been promoted to be the Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities…it’s a similar job to the prior one, but this one is much larger in scope: now he is working on behalf of the entire City of New York. We spoke on the phone recently so he could tell me a bit about the important work he’s currently doing, and here’s what he had to say.

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victor calise

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 Date: February 9, 2017

 Hometown: New York City

Current town: New York City

Good to talk to you today! Thank you for taking the time. Can you tell me a little about the Mayors Office for People with Disabilities? What’s your “elevator pitch”?

Sure! The MOPD has just released a report, “AccessibleNYC,” the first annual report on the state of people with disabilities in the City of New York, and how we are working to make it the most accessible city in the world.

We have four main focuses. First, transportation: we’re trying to improve taxis, trains, and Access-A-Ride. Second, employment: many people with disabilities are unemployed or under-employed, and it’s a poverty issue, so we have a business development council and are working with the City to find talent, and we’re working with City colleges and private universities on placement for their students with disabilities.   Number three is education: how we transition kids from preschool through high school and into college, or into the workforce. Fourth is access to City government, which is everything from the built environment, (for which we refer to a book called Inclusive Design Guidelines), reasonable accommodations for City agencies, access to affordable housing. For affordable housing in NYC, new developments set aside 7% for people with disabilities, but it is difficult for people with disabilities to meet the income requirements…that generally means that they’d need a subsidy, or that they need to have jobs.

That’s a tall order!

Yes, but for our mayor–with his agenda, it fits well. Every New Yorker should have this kind of access. They all tie in together.

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How do you define disability in your office? Is it the federal definition that considers it to be an impairment limiting a major life activity, or is it broader than that?

It’s a broad definition. The New York City Commission on Human Rights goes over and beyond what’s defined by the ADA, and includes conditions like ADHD, and obesity. The number of people in NYC who have disclosed a disability is about 948,000. The actual number is probably larger than that, more like 1.5 to 2 million is our guess, based on the US Census data.

I remember speaking with a law student once who was a disability rights advocate, with a big focus on accessibility, and she said that it was her opinion that we’re all disabled. She rejected the idea of a bright line rule like the court uses, and said that as infants, we start out disabled and when we’re old or we’re sick we end up disabled. And that no one can do everything. I can’t run a marathon. I can’t speak five languages. It was more like a theoretical spectrum of disabilities.   And when I interned when I was in law school for a group called New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, they made a point of insisting that access helped everyone. Things like curb cuts that make it easier for people using wheelchairs to get around: they also help people wheeling luggage, and parents pushing strollers.

Absolutely! Accessibility touches people with disabilities, but also parents with children, and our aging population. We believe that accessibility is really universal, things like curb cuts that you mentioned, but also automatic doors, and ramps that were designed for wheelchairs, being useful for groceries.

So when it works, it’s a win/win. I know people are often somewhat resistant to adding ramps because of the ugly design so many of them have. But there are definitely ways to make places accessible for people with impaired mobility without being ugly. The High Line does a great job with this, I think.

We worked with the High Line to do the 18th Street viewing area: we helped design that, and that’s where we come in. How do we make accessibility part of what it is, instead of something separate and added on? A lot of architects take a building design without accessibility and then add some ramp on the side as an afterthought. But we want it not on the side, but with inclusiveness. Part of the whole thing. The High Line is one example. NYC Department of Transportation is doing another: in the designs that they put together on the plazas, they include accessible features and they integrate accessible tables into that design. We’re also seeing more and more inclusiveness with the NYC Department of Design and Construction.

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How does NYC compare to other cities regarding accessibility?

We all have our challenges. Chicago has those elevated trains! DC has federal dollars and it’s a newer city, and their subway is newer than ours so they have some advantages. London has the same issues as we do. When they build new subways, they make them accessible, but it’s harder to retrofit their older subway lines. Here, the new Second Avenue line is accessible, but some of our older construction isn’t. We are on par with other cities. I like to think we’re better. We are the only place with accessible cabs. By 2020, 50% of the yellow cabs will be accessible.

That’s something that I’ve been thinking about. With the trend toward privatization of services, like Uber and Lyft instead of yellow cabs and people staying in Air BnBs instead of hotels, does that threaten accessibility?

We don’t want it to, but it does happen. We have a watchful eye on things like that. These businesses under the law, though, do have an obligation to be accessible. But it is an issue we are concerned about.

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What are the big challenges that you see for these plans and programs?

Cost. If we look at civil rights, changing programs, and services…it all comes with a price tag. Interpreters, hearing loop systems, ramps: they all cost something! But if we think about it in a strategic way and make it part of the process, we can do better. We’re making sure it is included in all of our requests for proposals.

The defunct payphones are being changed into these kiosks with wifi and chargers and access to City services, it’s called LinkNYC. Building accessibility into the RFP ensures that accessibility is matched, and it includes services for the blind– that’s the model that we’re using. To do that, RFPs must include accessibility. We had the same boilerplate language in our agreements that require contractors to meet the ADA codes. But we don’t want boilerplate, we want to be specific. We need to get people to believe in what we are doing. The City agencies are behind us, and more and more they have an understanding of disability.

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I know that sometimes access isn’t done in a thoughtful way. I remember an issue where a lot of public housing had installed accessible features in people’s apartments, wider door frames and grip bars, but that the buildings themselves didn’t have functional elevators or ramps, so that people ended up virtually trapped in their accessible apartments.

Yeah, there is a lack of thought, sometimes. Building new is relatively easy, though. If you don’t think about the costs upfront, you may end up with higher costs due to law suits and remediation. You want to plan in the beginning!

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What are your current big initiatives?

One Vanderbilt Plaza, which is part of the east midtown rezoning: what happened there, was that there was a development going on, and it added accessibility features into Grand Central, more accessibility with elevators. We are working with City Planning right now to look at people building next to elevated subways and above subway stations, and how can we give them incentives for them to build more accessible subway stops. That’s an initiative.

And there’s money for an employment initiative: over a million dollars, three million when we’re done, to hire and work on employing people with disabilities. There are grants coming in, and we’re making headway. Our goal is to have 700 people with disabilities employed per year over three years.

We are also setting up transition centers, the idea is that we’re setting up kids into high school and college, and we’re rolling that out to all five boroughs. We’ve been hiring people to be disability facilitators at City agencies to help with getting people with disabilities reasonable accommodations. They all touch within the areas: people need jobs, they need to get to their jobs, and so on.

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On a more personal note, what’s your favorite book? What should everybody read?

The Power Broker is one of my favorites as a New Yorker. It tells how our city was built, and brought into the way it is today – its modern existence.

It’s a tome.

Yes, it’s huge!

Robert Moses was a great, evil man. He did great things and bad things. Without him, we wouldn’t have the roads we have, but he also ripped neighborhoods apart. We do owe him for great parks, open space, green space.

He definitely was dictator-ish, Although Jane Jacobs defeated him in the West Village.

Did you read her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities?

You know, I tried, but that one was kind of dry.

It is definitely a little wordy. But I liked it, and I especially liked her writing about cities I know well. I think people who aren’t from the northeast might have some trouble getting through it.

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So what’s your favorite movie?

Star Wars. I’m a Star Wars baby. Good vs. bad.

I saw Rogue One pretty recently. Fascists from long, long ago in a galaxy far away.

Wasn’t it good?

I liked it. It was a good addition to the series. So, what is the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

Biggest risk I’ve taken in life…I think one of them, which is scary for people with disabilities, is what I did after my disability: going back into the workplace and that unknown. Disabled people are worried about health care benefits, and losing them. That was a scary moment in my life.

I’m fortunate. But it’s about taking that leap, and being scared of that unknown, and not having Medicare and Medicaid on your side. It’s a barrier to employment.

So, is there a lot of concern then about a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act and what might come next?

Yes, people with disabilities are quite afraid of losing the ACA; that could be detrimental, and disabilities are considered pre-existing conditions. It would be near impossible for them to get private insurance if the ACA is repealed.

It really comes down then to if it’s repealed, what it’s replaced with.

We don’t know what the future of health care access holds. We don’t know about the future even of Medicare and Medicaid holds.  But unless we go to a single payer system, which would be an improvement, it’s hard to think of something else that won’t harm people with disabilities. So people are worried. I’m very worried.

That sounds like an enormous challenge, and yes, a real barrier to employment for people with disabilities. What is the best advice you’ve been given?

Challenge myself. Get out of my comfort zone. It was Adrian Benepe that told me that.

Did he hire you for the Parks Department job?

Yes he did, he got me started in my role in NYC government.

That’s super, it’s really good to hear how much good work you are doing. Are you still involved with the Paralympics?

I do volunteer some of my time on weekends…I’m coaching the Wheelchair Sports Federation Sled Rangers, a sled hockey team. It’s for kids with disabilities in NYC and the surrounding area.

It’s a lot of fun, there are kids from different backgrounds and cultures, and some of them, I think, are future Paralympians!

That’s terrific. I know you have to run because you’re so busy heading up a NYC agency, so thank you so much for your time! It was really great talking to you, and I hope you keep on doing all the good things for NYC that you’ve been doing.

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of a katz / Shutterstock.com; Portrait Courtesy of Victor Calise

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ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE

Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

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Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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