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Do you think New York City can be the most accessible city in the world? That’s Victor Calise’s goal. He’s the Commissioner for the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and Jay spoke with him about how his disability catapulted him into his professional journey. They discussed what accessibility on a broad scale means, and how his office is tackling big-picture accessibility issues in the city such as disability employment, accessible transportation and accessible technology.
As Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Victor Calise has been a tireless advocate for people with disabilities in both the Bloomberg and de Blasio Administrations. Responsible for ensuring that New York City is the most accessible city in the world, Calise advises the Mayor and agency partners on accessibility issues, spearheads public-private partnerships, and chairs the Accessibility Committee of the City’s Building Code.
A dedicated public servant for over two decades, Commissioner Calise previously worked in the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation where he led efforts to make one of the largest and most complex parks systems in the world universally accessible by ensuring compliance with construction standards, managing facilities, and developing training materials.
Jay Ruderman: Do you think New York City will become the most accessible city in the world? Our guest today is working towards making it happen.
Announcer: All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, and welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman. We are thrilled to welcome Victor Calise, Commissioner of New York City Mayor’s Office of People With Disabilities. Victor Calise has been a tireless advocate for people with disabilities, both in the Bloomberg and de Blasio Administrations. Victor is responsible for working toward the goal that New York City will be the most accessible city in the world. He advises the mayor and agency partners on accessibility issues, spearheads public-private partnerships and chairs the Accessibility Committee of the city’s building code. Welcome, Victor, and thank you for joining me.
Victor Calise: Great. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity to speak with you.
Jay Ruderman: So tell us a little bit about your personal experience growing up in New York City.
Victor Calise: So growing up in New York City was magical. I grew up in an Outerborough, which was Queens and grew up a Met fan and we had an opportunity to do everything and anything. We had our bicycles and we biked around the neighborhood. We played hockey on the streets and we used the cones as our goals. We also pushed local shopping carts and went from neighborhood to neighborhood throughout Queens and played roller hockey. We also played football playing from sewer cap to sewer cap. That was our goalpost and then we would just use the streets as our playgrounds and played a lot of baseball. Stoopball, baseball, you would name it. We would do it and it was magical. It was fun to play everything in the street and see our friends and our family all together and I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else.
Jay Ruderman: Tell me how your personal journey has led to your professional journey.
Victor Calise: As I mentioned earlier, I played a lot of sports growing up. My personal journey in disability started when I was injured in 1994 in a bicycle accident. I was downhill mountain bike riding. I flew over my handlebars into a tree and at that moment I knew I was paralyzed when that happened, and I wasn’t sure what life would be like as a person with a disability. That was all upsetting. And that personal moment really shaped who I am today, and my disability allowed me to catapult into the arena that I’m in now and we’re working to make New York City the most successful city in the world.
Jay Ruderman: Throughout the years you’ve become a champion for disability inclusion here in New York and on a national level and for a very good reason. Tell me a little bit about the innovative actions you’ve taken in New York so far.
Victor Calise: So our office has been around since 1972 and we’ve never really held ourselves accountable for what we’ve done. So we were keenly aware of that and put together something called Accessible NYC. And it’s really the state of persons with disabilities in New York City and it touches on lots of different areas, but the main areas for people with disabilities, and we talk about transportation, employment, healthcare, housing, everything the city has to offer. And we really drive those initiatives and look at ways of where the city is building to make them a reality. So we, the city of New York, have expanded wheelchair accessible taxis, we are the biggest next to London. We, right now, have about 2,000 wheelchair accessible taxis on the street. When we’re talking about wheelchair accessibility in the taxi, it’s not the only thing that we’re providing. We’re looking at our cabs, ensuring that we’re installing hearing loops within those taxis.
Victor Calise: We also make sure that all of our payment options and screens are accessible for people with visual disabilities. And there’s training that is done with the drivers that drive these accessible vehicles and it’s to get them trained and understand that they can pick up people with service animals, how to work with someone and strap down their wheelchairs properly. So we do training around that. So we’re excited to be able to do that. And we, the city of New York, have made the For-Hire Vehicle, meaning the ride-sharing apps accessible for people with disabilities. We’ve passed rules to increase the number of it For-Hire Vehicles that are on the street. We have agreements to cut down wait times to 15 minutes or less and that’s something that’s going to happen. Central dispatch and share data with the city of New York, which no other companies have been willing to do. But we’ve been able to do that and pass some rules.
Victor Calise: With that though we, they keenly understood that we need to really push wheelchair accessible vehicles in that fleet. So what’s been happening is they did not ban wheelchair accessible vehicles so the companies can put as many accessible vehicles they want on the street right now. And we’ve been seeing that number increase. Is that due to the ban? Possibly. Is it due to our rules? Possibly. I think maybe it’s combination of both of them, but that’s one of the ways that we’ve been pushing for transportation. And certainly looking at our subways and how we build on the existing infrastructure and looking at people that are building over subway stations or next to subway stations and what the city is doing to invest dollars in that type of capital project. Those are things that we’re all looking at to move things forward.
Jay Ruderman: So let me ask you about transportation because before we started talking on the podcast, you had mentioned your experience as Paralympian in a foreign city and how no one would stop to pick you up. With Uber and Lyft and taxi service, is that still an issue? Has there been enough awareness done in the city so that you don’t have that problem where a person with disability calls a cab and the cab comes and just passes them up by?
Victor Calise: So there’s a couple of different ways that we look at that. Number one is there’s a app called Accessible Dispatch and that is direct to the person. That driver actually knows they’re picking up a person with a disability. So there really isn’t a gray area there because they automatically know that. And I haven’t heard of anybody not being picked up because of their disability. We have heard that people have tried flagging down a cab on the street and not able to get it because the cabdriver passes by. And that happens to lots of other people in the city, unfortunately. So what the TLC does is they really enforce that.
Victor Calise: So if someone lets us know about that and takes down that cab number and calls 311, there is a formal process that can happen and these drivers are called in and there’s a court date that they have to sit down to and they have to. They’re held accountable to that. But if we don’t know about it, we can’t fix it. So if that happens here in New York City, I encourage everyone to take down that cab number and call 311 and file that complaint and see how the process actually works. And I’ve done that myself because that has happened to me in the past and when we let people know we hold people accountable and when we hold people accountable, they’re less likely to do that.
Jay Ruderman: Right. So let me talk a little bit about the subway system because studies have shown that transportation is vital to the employment of people with disabilities. If you can’t access public education, you can’t get to a job, the chances are you won’t get the job. New York is having one of the oldest and most extensive subway systems in the world. The Ruderman Family Foundation in the past working with activists in the city found out, and correct me if I’m wrong, that out of the 500 so subway stations in the New York City area with all the boroughs, about a hundred of them are accessible to people disabilities. Now, I understand it’s an old system and there’re some upgrades and there’re costs and it takes time. How do you see the subway system in New York right now in terms of accessibility?
Victor Calise: By the year 2020, 100 Key stations will be accessible. That’s transfer stations, Key stations that people use around the city. So that’s really something that’s movement. When that lawsuit came out from Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association back in the 70s and 80s it was held as something extraordinary, and it was because it really brought some access at that time. We have grown and people with disabilities are more vocal and wanted to be involved in everything the city has to offer. So that pressure certainly has pushed people to really think differently and we have to do a better job. The stations are not as accessible as they should and I don’t think the MTA would say the Mass Transit Authority, who runs the system, would say anything less and they have and agreed and Andy Byford, the new President of the MTA, has put together a fast forward plan and it was to make sure they engage employers for a better system.
Victor Calise: They cut down on wait times and one of those key initiatives is accessibility and that’s extraordinary, to actually hear it and be put out there. And he’s backed up his words because they’ve hired their first Accessibility Chief that reports directly to Andy and that’s the person called Alex Elegudin. So Alex Elegudin who is working on this accessibility is a person who uses a wheelchair himself, so he’s keenly aware of what needs to be changed in the system. And in the fast forward plan, they really talk about accessibility, making stations more accessible, making every other stop accessible and really being able to push that forward, and they need help. And the city of New York is working right now. We’re looking at different ways to include accessibility. In our Accessible NYC, we have broadly talked about incentivizing developers to include accessibility within their footprint of a subway station. What’s in the nexus of that subway station?
Victor Calise: Because we’ve seen people that have built over subway stations and accessibility wasn’t added. So we have, for years I’ve been pushing that and where we hear that people are more interested in doing that. Working with city planning and pulling this all together is important because we need lots of actors to make the system accessible. And when we talk about accessibility, it has to be on a broad scale. It has to be for people with visual disabilities, people with hearing disabilities. And we need to be able to talk about that and navigate that as one issue and not just a separate issue. So elevators help everybody, people with luggage, right? We need those tourists dollars, so we need them to come in. The aging population, our cities are not getting any younger, both in infrastructure and in age of the residents that are there and we need to be able to provide for them as well. So we need lots of different options to really include our diverse population of people throughout our city.
Jay Ruderman: And my guess is that in a city like New York, not only the subway system, but the bus system is hugely important in terms of people moving around the city. How are the buses in terms of accessibility?
Victor Calise: So that lawsuit that happened made buses accessible and there was a quote by Mayor Koch at that one time that said, “It would be cheaper to send people with disabilities around in limousines then it would be to make the buses accessible.” Well, 100% of those buses are accessible today. It’s a great way for people to get around. There’s a lot of training that has gone into the drivers to ensure that they properly load people with disabilities and strap them down securely so their chairs don’t slip. The MTA has a strong policy in ensuring that people with disabilities have access to those buses and if something’s not working they want to know about it so they can fix that and address it and we don’t know about it we can’t fix it.
Jay Ruderman: You have a powerful position in the city in order to move forward disability rights, but you’re always reliant upon the leadership of the city in general. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the leadership, the mayor’s office and how they have internalized this issue? Have they seen it as an important issue and how has your relationship been with your superiors?
Victor Calise: Having top-down support is integral in anything that anyone ever does and it really comes from leadership. We’ve been fortunate with Mayor de Blasio that he understands disability and he’s pushed his administration to do that, and how? Well, number one, by making sure that we have a good representative of the mayor’s office pushing that and we’ve been able to build a bigger team here under our office. We started with eight, we’re about 26 people right now when I came into office, and talking with the mayor on lots of different issues with what they are and how they can support people with disabilities.
Victor Calise: And my deputy mayor who I report to because I’m only one level away from the mayor, supportive of disability. Making sure that when we’re looking at the agenda that it’s across all agencies and we’ve done a really good job. There was a local law with disability service facilitators and that made sure that they, disability service facilitators, are across all agencies, meaning that someone is working on disability-specific issues and addressing that within the agency. Either it’s in capital projects or in programs and services because under title two that’s what we have to do.
Victor Calise: And we’ve been really successful throughout Department of Transportation, Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Cultural Affairs, making sure that when we put out our cultural plan that it included people with disabilities. Included people with disabilities in the sense of people visiting, in the sense that people were employed and the sense that they could support artists with disabilities. And that’s written in our cultural plan. So that’s the type of leadership that we’re addressing that when we’re talking about safe streets and our vision zero initiative, that is making sure that people with disabilities are included in that, meaning that they’re accessible pedestrian signals and we’re adding more crosswalks that are accessible for people with disabilities. And those are things what a city’s supposed to do. And those are what we’re moving for. Moving towards, excuse me, and we’ve been sued on a lot of different issues and now, I don’t want to be the city that sued. We want to be the city that’s proactive and we think of different innovative ways to be proactive and tech in our cities is certainly one of them.
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Jay Ruderman: The lawsuits sometimes will bring issues to the forefront that will often cause change and activism I think plays its role. Let me ask you, what are at the forefront of the challenges that you see on a daily basis? And I’ll also include with that, what are the big picture issues that you’re looking at at this time?
Victor Calise: I often say, if you’re not seeing, you’re not heard. If you’re not heard, you’re not seen and people with disabilities need to be out and about their communities. That’s the reason why we should have accessibility, right? Because we need people with disabilities to be part of everything the city has to offer. So making sure that everything’s accessible certainly moves that forward and when we’re talking about accessibility, we have to be sure that we’re including people with cognitive disabilities, people with mobility disabilities, people with vision and hearing and we need to make sure that mental health issues, all of that is part of that disability picture and we here in the office have a broad view of that because we are city government, we have to be able to provide for people. Some of the ways that we’re providing for people who are deaf that we’ve never have been able to do in the past is American Sign Language Direct.
Victor Calise: Someone could video-call our office through the Internet, through a video phone, get to our office and get a person who is fluent in ASL and be able to address the issues that they have in connecting them to resources here in the city. That’s never happened before. We’ve been able to look at our request for proposals when we’re building new infrastructure, specifically in our LinkNYC kiosks and install accessibility features in their height levels, talkback features, high color contrast, Braille, all of that to be included. But that started in our request for proposal process. So looking at different ways that we can include people with disabilities and getting them involved in society is what we need to do. One of our big initiatives that we have moving forward and the way that we’re really going to change the perception of people with disabilities is employment. We put together a program called NYC At Work.
Victor Calise: It’s the first public-private partnership to employ people with disabilities here within New York City, funded by the Kessler Foundation, funded by Nielsen Foundation, funded by ACCES-VR because we have our New York state partners involved with that. We have the Poses Family Foundation and it really drives our initiative because 79% of people with disabilities from the working age of 18 to 64 in New York City are jobless. If I said that for any other group, there’d be riots in the street, but somehow that’s okay for people with disabilities, we can’t have that anymore. We need to employ people with disabilities. Sure. There are a lot of factors why people with disabilities aren’t employed. Social Security Disability, Medicaid, all that has to be addressed. So we put together this public-private partnership and it’s business led and business driven. Usually, what’s happened in the past, there’s been a lot of people with disabilities sitting around with service providers and what’s absent from that is businesses.
Victor Calise: So we’ve actually included businesses in every job sector. We’re looking at finance and looking at transportation, employment, retail, healthcare, making sure that city government’s at the table with that as well. And we have big names that are involved and we put a business development council together with over 90 businesses. Right. And we asked them, “Why aren’t you hiring people with disabilities?” And the key takeaways were, “We can’t find the talent.” “HR stops them at the door.” “We’re not sure how to provide for a reasonable accommodation, and when we do hire them, we’re not sure exactly how to advance them.”
Victor Calise: Okay. We know that there are over 10,000 students in our city universities alone that doesn’t even count the private colleges, which are Fordham, Pace, St John’s University, Mary Mount College, Columbia, NYU is the big names. So we know that they’re out there. So we’ve connected with all of those colleges to be able to look for talent and we’re building a talent pipeline and a lot of people that have come through our office, through our initiative have come on their own because they found out about our program that they’re desperate for that.
Victor Calise: So we actually pull people into our office, we look at their resume, we make sure that their resumes are appropriate and make sure they have everything that they need to succeed. And we give them some tips, give them some informational interviews with our business development council, get them really ready for what they need to do. And we actually match the person with the job. We’re not matching the resume to the job. We actually match the person to the job. We make sure that we set them up for success because no one wants to hire a person with a disability just to hire a person with a disability. They want a qualified person.
Jay Ruderman: And I think that my experience working in this field for decades has been that companies that have really moved the ball forward in hiring people with disabilities at the executive level believe in it. They have a personal connection to a disability in their own family. They believe in disability inclusion, in employment. To expand beyond that, I think in our experience in Boston has been, once you get a company that hires a person with disability and they see not only did they have a good productive worker, but it also changes the culture of the entire company, and in some ways it makes people feel much better about where they are, so we have to get that. But I think what we’re up against, not just in New York, but all over the world, is a stigma that comes out of history where people with disabilities historically have been institutionalized and secluded and segregated.
Jay Ruderman: And to move beyond that takes a little bit of education. Someone like yourself and your department can do a lot to work on public-private partnership. So I really commend you and hope that you have future success in that. Let me throw you a question, sort of out of left field. A lot of TV shows and movies are filmed in New York. It’s a desirable location. Is there anything the city can do to promote more authentic representation of people disabilities in film and TV? Because we know from our work at the Ruderman Family Foundation that the more people with disabilities are seen authentically in entertainment, the more stigma is reduced, the more they’re part of people’s lives. Even though in a city like New York where you have millions and millions of people, it’s still a lot of people interact or see things through entertainment. The TV that’s coming into their home, movies that they’re watching, so is there any role that the city can play in order to help move that agenda forward?
Victor Calise: Yes, there is. And the Mayor’s Office Of Media And Entertainment has been engaging with us on lots of different issues. Right now as we speak, The ReelAbilities Film Festival is going on. That really started out of New York City and is really all around the world at this point, and it’s growing in its numbers and Mayor’s Office Of Media Entertainment has gotten behind that, and we’ve been running ads and showing positive ads of people with disabilities in our New York City taxis to really drive that home.
Jay Ruderman: I saw that on the way up here.
Victor Calise: Yeah, and we continue to do that, and we’ve been doing that for a while. We have our NYC TV and we run ads on our NYC TV and we have the LinkNYC, and we promote disability out there as well. And really encouraging that type advertisement really makes people think differently. So working with me, Mayor’s Office Of Media and Entertainment is certainly something that we’re doing and continuing to do, but we really need to drive it a little bit more and talk about and have forums to talk about the issue of the role of a person with the disability through all this filming. And I think that’s more conversation that has to happen. But these are some of the steps that we’ve taken, but there’s more.
Jay Ruderman: That’s great. It’s so influential on society. You think of different sectors of our society, whether it’s been the African American community, the Asian community, the LBGTQ community, and how much they progressed in entertainment and how that, in turn, has impacted our society, and the way people see people from those minority groups and New York can do a lot because a lot of things are filmed here. Let me ask you, what’s your vision? What’s the big goal out there? Where could you see New York becoming the shining city on the hill for people with disabilities?
Victor Calise: I think of so many different areas. We’ve done some really good stuff in our theaters working with the Theater Development Fund and the Broadway League and right now with Schubert Theatre and they’ve added accessibility features called GalaPro, and I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of it. They’re an Israeli company, and they get all of this captioning and audio description and anyone that’s interested in seeing a show two weeks after it starts can see it. They don’t have to wait for a special show anymore. I mean those are really cool and innovative ways that we’re changing theater and the experience of how you can enjoy what New York City has to offer.
Victor Calise: We have looked at all types of new transportation systems that have come out and the future of them. One of the things that we just added is an accessible ferry system. We just opened the ferry system that goes through all five boroughs. We’ve ensured that we were there, in the beginning, making sure that we were in that design process, adding everything that we could for accessibility in a broad scope. We’ve added wheelchair accessible bathrooms because it goes over and beyond what it needs to be able to do. But that very systems accessible. I mean those are things to look at. Really having a person that’s driving this within city government at a high level really changes that. We are looking at tech and how that actually hits our city and how we’re looking at those requests for proposal processes at the beginning and ensuring that it’s there. And what does a city look like that’s driven by tech and how does it include people with disabilities? I mean that’s a big thing that’s happening and there’s a digital infrastructure that’s being built that cannot leave people with disabilities behind.
Victor Calise: If that happens, we’re going to be fighting two fronts. A digital system that’s coming out that’s not accessible disabilities along with the infrastructure. So we can’t let that happen. And we’ve been driving accessible tech within our cities and seeing how the LinkNYC can be this convener, this hub within our city to be able to push information and have person to person contact, vehicle to vehicle contact, vehicle to person, vehicle to infrastructure, person to infrastructure. And our Department of Transportation is looking at this and seeing how we can do that. We’ve changed the way that people with visual disabilities cross the street now because we’ve added bike lanes and that disrupter in that bike lane has pushed the vehicles out further. Cars are getting quieter and people with visual disabilities can’t hear what’s actually happening because we’ve disconnected it from that. So how do we use tech to be able to make those bikes connected to that person?
Victor Calise: And what does that look like in wearables? What does that look like in haptic vibrations that happen on watches in those wearables? How do we connect that vehicle to that person? How do we drive those smart wheelchairs? Things like that. And that’s something that we’ve been pushing really hard with and talking about and looking with our Department of Information, Telecommunications Technology. We have our first ever Accessibility Chief in New York City running out of our office and working with the technology and making sure our websites are accessible, making sure our apps are accessible, including accessibility in social media. People don’t understand that your Instagram and your Twitter accounts can be accessible for people with disabilities. And just by tagging and describing photos, we do that all across our city and with all of our digital people to say, “Hey, we need to make things accessible.”
Jay Ruderman: Right. Well, you’re doing amazing work, and I think that technology will be transformational in moving forward inclusion in our society for people with disabilities. Well, thank you, Victor, for joining me today and for your leadership. It’s amazing to learn about all you’re doing every day for the people with disabilities in New York and around the country, and we look forward to witnessing your revolutionary plans come to life in New York and around the world. Please keep us updated and thank you for your time today.
Victor Calise: Thank you. To find out more about what New York City’s doing on accessibility, please check out our website, nyc.gov/disability.
Announcer: All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to Tweet @jayruderman.