Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Interview #4, Victor Calise

    Victor Calise remembers racing down a hill in Forest Park, Queens, out in front of his friends.  His bike hit something.  He flew over the handlebars, and woke up in Jamaica Hospital.  He moved his fingers.  He tried to move his toes.  "Oh crap, I'm paralyzed.  I asked my friend for a gun.  I didn't think I wanted to live.  We had a friend who had a spinal cord injury a couple years before, and I thought it was the worst thing on the face of the earth."

    He was twenty-two, a Queens kids who grew up in Ozone Park and became a plumber.  Twenty years later, he's the NYC Commissioner for People with Disabilities.  He lives with his wife and two
daughters on the Upper West Side.  On the wall of his office, there's a picture of him, looking ridiculously young, in the boxy gear of a hockey player, shaking hands with President Clinton.  He toured Europe on the United States Sledge Hockey Team and competed in the 1998 Paralympics in Japan.

    I met Victor in 2012 when Extreme Kids & Crew needed a space in which to create an indoor play environment for kids with disabilities.  By this time, I had a fair amount of practice knocking on the doors of officialdom, and I knew what to expect: I would be greeted warmly, told that I was a great person, then kindly ushered away, with vague promises for future meetings.  Perhaps some forms that I could fill out would be slipped into my hands.  But when I told Victor that the City should give us space, he swiveled his wheelchair to his computer, and immediately began calling and emailing people.  I watched in astonishment.  A few months after this meeting, Parks allowed us to convert a little brick house in a Clinton Hill playground into CAP House: the cozy home of our bubble tube, ball pit, and squeeze machine, and the site of many a happy playgroup.

    Victor can also jump up curbs on his wheelchair.  He played sports when he was able-bodied, and sports integrated him back into his life when he became disabled.  To help kids with physical disabilities enjoy the confidence and sense of belonging that sports can offer, he and Bill Greenberg founded a kids sled hockey team a couple of years ago--the WSF New York Sled Rangers.  The team has grown quickly, and now has thirty children.  The Sled Rangers' traveling team just came back from competing in Minneapolis.  Victor's face lights up when he talks about the trip.  Some of the kids are from lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx.  They'd rarely left their borough.  "Now they're on an airplane! Leaving the city! Their self esteem is through the roof."

Definition of Disability:

Someone who needs a little help.

What drives you nuts about disability?
People.  People with disabilities let able-bodied people into their world.  You get a temporary disability, you get all the perks--parking, speedy wheelchair through airport security.  Able-bodied people take advantage of these conveniences.  But they don't let people with permanent disabilities into their world.  There's an enormous lack of access for people with disabilities, whether we're talking about buildings, transportation, or jobs.

Current Project:
Meeting with DeBlasio's new commissioners and pushing the disability agenda.  A bunch of these new commissioners are into equality and they get it.  The Department of Transportation just hired an ADA coordinator, which is great.

Recent Wonder:
We hired a new counsel with 27 years of experience with ADA, Kleo King.  She's general counsel with a background in stadium design and housing.  She's going to be talking to the general counsels of all the other agencies, changing the infrastructure, making NYC a better place for people with disabilities.

Here's the interview, conducted by Eliza Factor and Julia Rothwax.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Interview #3, Christopher Noel

     Christopher Noel (38) grew up in New York City.  At 6'5", he's a big guy whose sport, growing up, was basketball.  He studied business management at Amherst, then returned to the city to begin his career at a publishing firm.  But when he was 28, he fell.  His spinal cord was injured, and he lost the ability to move his legs.  After ten years in a wheelchair, he might still consider himself a "newbie" in the world of disability, but he has made his mark.  As he became more aware of all that was inaccessible to him due to his wheelchair, he became an advocate.  He was on the team that sued the state for more accessible voting booths, and served as a plaintiff in the suit that made the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission provide more accessible taxis.  This last initiative was one that the Bloomberg administration fought, but is now finally being implemented.
     Chris still enjoys playing basketball, along with football and polo, but he's taken a temporary leave from sports to focus on his job.  Since May of 2013 he's been the ADA Accessibility Coordinator at the Department of Parks and Recreation.  He works on capital projects, conferring with and educating landscape architects, engineers and construction managers on ways to make playgrounds and parks more accessible: more ground-level features, more sensitivity areas, more ramping.  He also develops partnerships between parks and disability groups, creates new adaptive sports programs, and works with members of the general public who have questions about disability.  One of the perks of his job is a nifty adaptable car, emblazoned with the maple leaf Parks Department logo.  It has a hand brake and accelerator instead of foot pedals.  He hops into the driver's seat, folds up his wheelchair and is off.

How would you define disability?

Something that limits you due to x, y or z.  Everyone has a disability of some sort.  No one's perfect.  Everyone has a flaw of some type.  In terms of ADA, we should all be treated the same, because we are all disabled.

How did you get involved in disability?
I was injured in a slip-and-fall accident.   Boom! You become disabled one day.  I went to therapy, therapy, therapy.  After a while I didn't see the return I expected.  I said, let me learn more about disability.  I went to peer sessions, clinics, started speaking to people, even people who didn't have spinal cord injuries, people more in tune with the disability world.  If this is the world I'm going to be in, let me learn more about it.

What drives you nuts about your disability?
The walking aspect.  I was an athlete.  I used to be able to dunk the basketball.  The walking, that's the only thing I would say.

Recent wonder:
Chris used to do outreach at ICS, a nonprofit that manages long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities.  He recently bumped into some old co-workers who told him how much he was missed, and reminded him of this story:  When ICS first hired him, the company was under pressure to expand or lose its funding.  It was a home-grown nonprofit, more like a family than a corporation, and people were crying, afraid that they were going to lose their jobs.  Chris's task was to increase membership by 1000 plus.  He was given a staff of five, all of whom had disabilities: cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal cord injury.  None had been to college.  Not all had been to high school.  They were "the disabled people."  They got a part-time paycheck and that was it.  Now they were told to save the company.  They were scared.  They hadn't been given this kind of responsibility before.  They didn't have confidence.  Chris organized them into a team and explained that they'd all take the blame or the credit together.  They got ICS to buy them tables and materials and they went out into the streets.  They chose highly trafficked areas near where Medicaid is, projects and low-income housing and shopping areas around the five boroughs.  They set up their tables and the numbers started coming in.  They saved the company.  "Who would think a group of 5 or 6 people with disabilities would keep people's jobs that weren't disabled?"

Current project:
I've got two favorites:
1. The adaptive hubs.  Last year, Queens was the only borough that did adaptive sports.  Now we have at least one recreation center in each borough that has adaptive sports or programming.  We've got wheelchair basketball in every borough, flag football in two boroughs, softball in three boroughs, wheelchair yoga.

2. The Fifth Annual NYC Parks Paralympics Track and Field Open coming up on Friday, October 17 at Icahn Stadium in Randall's Island.  This is for kids of any ability and should attract 150-300 kids. Parks and the schools work on this.  School buses provide transportation and the event is treated as a field trip. Interested parents should contact or 646-632-7344 for more information.