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As Disabilities Commissioner Exits, Constituents Want More Access to City Hall

SHARE As Disabilities Commissioner Exits, Constituents Want More Access to City Hall

Disability-rights advocate Marc Safman outside of City Hall in January.

Katie Honan/THE CITY

Accessibility advocates across New York are hopeful that a change in leadership within the city’s office for people with disabilities will bring on new improvements, as the longtime commissioner is set to leave next month.

Victor Calise, one of the city’s longest-serving commissioners, will leave his post March 4 to take a job at Wal-Mart, he told THE CITY on Monday. 

He was appointed to lead the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in 2012 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He had previously worked as an accessibility coordinator in the Parks Department.

Mayor Eric Adams did not mention the office or disability issues in his first budget speech on Wednesday.

More than 920,000 New York City residents self-identify as living with a disability, according to MOPD.

A spokesperson for Adams said that the mayor “remains firm on his commitment to the disability rights community and is focused on building a more accessible city for all New Yorkers” and would announce leadership appointments when they are ready. 

“Mayor Adams is focused on picking the best people for these jobs to serve the greatest city in the world,” spokeswoman Lauren Bale said in an email. “When we have updates we will make them public.”

‘It’s Just a Matter of Will

Longtime disability advocates are pushing to play a role in picking the next commissioner — and for better municipal accessibility for the nearly million city residents who live with a disability. 

Marc Safman, who co-founded New York DeafBlind Advocates, has spent many cold mornings outside City Hall this winter to get the mayor’s attention on large and small changes that could help the lives of disabled New Yorkers.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks with Victor Calise (left) in Feb. 2020.

NYC.gov

He called for improved translation and captioning for deafblind New Yorkers at public events, better access in schools, and changes to make city websites more readable for everyone. 

“In the short term there’s a lot of things the city can do, it’s just a matter of will,” he said. 

He also pointed to co-navigator programs, which provide specially trained personnel to New Yorkers with disabilities to allow them more autonomy while shopping, traveling, voting, and attending community and civic events.

Safman, 51, who lives in Astoria, said the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities can be difficult to navigate and needs an overhaul. 

“There’s a severe lack of understanding of deafblindness,” he said of the agency. “There’s not a lot of effort put into how policies are being implemented.”

Behind the Times

The nearly 1 million New Yorkers with disabilities confront diverse issues, from mobility and physical challenges to neurological and cognitive conditions.

A larger share of people with disabilities are also living below the poverty line — 30% of New Yorkers, compared to 18% of those without a disability, MOPD data shows.

Unemployment rates are also much higher. A report released in June by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that unemployment rates between April 2020 and March 2021 for disabled New Yorkers averaged 16.2%, a spike from 8.9% over the previous year. 

Sharon McLennon-Wier, the executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, said  major improvements are still needed on employment, housing, transportation, education and accessibility. 

Making improvements can be a challenge.Last December, a federal judge ruled that New York City has to fit all of its crosswalks with Accessible Pedestrian Signal devices by 2036. 

“New York City is very much in the Dark Ages regarding accessibility for all different types of disabilities,” McLennon-Wier said. 

She was hopeful about a bill signed Monday by Gov. Kathy Hochul that establishes a new statewide chief disability officer. Kimberly T. Hill, who was most recently a principal analyst with the Assembly’s Standing Committee on People with Disabilities, was appointed to the position.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and new Chief Disability Officer Kimberly T. Hill in Troy, N.Y., Feb. 14, 2022.

Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The governor also vowed to designate up to 1,200 jobs within state government to be filled by candidates with disabilities, and said she would expand the New York State Commission for the Blind’s Business Enterprise Program. 

“All New Yorkers deserve the best,” Hochul said Monday. “They deserve the best representation in government. They need a champion who is directly in the governor’s office, part of the chamber so there’s direct accountability, which I think is important.”

New York had created a State Office of the Advocate for the Disabled in 1983 but the office was mostly absorbed into another office in 2011, and later disbanded when ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, according to the governor’s office. 

The new position will work to prioritize the needs of the diverse disability community – those with physical, neurological, intellectual, and other disabilities, Hochul said.

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