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.
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?"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-632-7344 for more information.