Larry Minei, Jack Cubero and NYC Commissioner of Disabilities Victor Calise attend the 2016 Breakaway! Fundraiser on Feb. 9, 2016 in New York City.
It’s not unusual for Victor Calise’s job and his joy to intersect on the streets of New York City.
He was driving along Central Park West recently when he spotted a boy about 6 or 7 years old in a wheelchair accompanied by his parents.
“I pulled over and gave him my card and said, ‘Let’s get you involved in sport,’” said Calise, who competed for Team USA in the Paralympic Winter Games Nagano 1998 in sled hockey. “It’s important to get them involved while they’re young.”
As Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Calise can’t provide that personal touch for each of his constituents. But with the goal of making the Big Apple the most accessible city in the world – including transportation, employment, education, technology and financial empowerment -- he is aided by landmark legislation celebrating its 30th anniversary today
The Americans with Disability Act, known as the ADA, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.
“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” Bush said
This civil rights law has been compared to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate based on race, religion, sex, national origin and other characteristics.
“I’ve been injured for 26 years of my life, and so I was fortunate enough to have the ADA with me,” said Calise, who uses a wheelchair after suffering a spinal cord injury in a mountain biking accident at age 22. “If I think about about what the advocates went through before and what their fight was - that they weren’t able to get on buses, they weren’t able to get taxis, they weren’t able to get in stores - those things were extraordinary and I’ve been reaping the benefits of their advocacy.”
In 1986, the National Council on Disability issued a report called “Towards Independence.” Lawmakers and the Bush administration then began formulating legislation to provide equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
Crossing the Finish Line
The law had bipartisan support in Congress, but encountered pushback from churches that balked at making expensive structural changes and small businesses and other employers worried about costs and increased legal risks.
Disability rights advocates came up with a compelling visual to prove their point: The Capitol Crawl. They ditched their wheelchairs and crutches and pulled themselves up the front steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington while chanting “ADA Now.
Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who was one of the main authors of the final bill, and the chief Senate sponsor of the legislation. Inspired by his older brother, who was deaf, Harkin gave part of his speech in sign language.
A 2008 amendments act, signed by George W. Bush, broadened the definition of disability.
Calise said when he looks at the ADA, “I’m blown away that it’s provided so much. And I’m happy to see it, but I know that this is just a little bit of where we need to go. Because the next 30 years have to be accelerated.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability, which is about one in four adults.
The latest statistics show that:
• 13.7 percent of adults have a mobility issue (serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs).
• 10.8 percent have a cognition difficulty (concentration, remembering or making decisions).
• 6.8 percent have difficulty with independent living (doing errands alone).
• 5.9 percent are deaf or have a hearing impairment.
• 4.6 percent are blind or have serious difficulty seeing.
• 3.7 percent have difficulty with self-care (including dressing or bathing).
Calise said there are at least 900,000 people in New York City who identify as having a disability, but the real number is probably closer to 1.5 million.
Accessibility doesn’t just mean making it easier for people to get around by providing something as simple as crosswalks with curb cuts. It’s also about expanding employment opportunities and giving greater access to city services and education for people with disabilities.
As the world has evolved, so have their needs. Calise said that everything now delivered digitally must be accessible to those with a disability.
“We have to find a way to bridge that gap and give municipal wifi - free wifi - and access to the internet like never before,” he said, “because that is the wave of the future.”
The area of transportation has seen the advent of Uber and Lyft, so not only must cars be accessible to people with physical disabilities, but folks with vision and hearing disabilities must be able to use the apps.
“In every facet of our life, we need access to everything, just like everyone else,” Calise said.
Naturally, that includes sports. The first sport clubs for the deaf were in existence in the late 1800s in Germany, and the first Deaflympics were held in 1924 in Paris. (The Deaflympics are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. There are no specific events for deaf athletes at the Paralympics.)
Following World War II, there were a large number of injured veterans and civilians. Sir Ludwig Guttmann saw sport as being central to the rehabilitation of people with spinal cord injuries.
The Stoke Mandeville Games, named for a British hospital with a spinal injuries center, began in 1948 and featured the first competition for wheelchair athletes.
The first Paralympic Games (Para is the Greek preposition for beside or alongside) were held in Rome in 1960, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in eight sports. At the most recent Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, a total of 4,328 athletes from 159 countries competed in 22 sports.
Winter Paralympians got into the action in 1976, with 53 athletes from 16 countries competing in two sports in Sweden. By 2018 in PyeongChang, a record 567 from 49 delegations took part in six sports.
Since 1988 in Seoul and 1992 in Albertville – the same cities have hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with accessibility built into the plans for the Village and venues.
“Founding Fathers of Sled Hockey”
While Calise said Team USA did not have the support or the funding to field a sled hockey team in 1994, when the sport made its Paralympic debut, he was part of the first American team in the event in 1998.
He was pleasantly surprised to find accessible buses, rooms and venues in Nagano.
“I like to say the 1998 team was the founding fathers of sled hockey,” Calise said. “We would host clinics around the country, which would be our training camps. We started youth programs that have led to the success of USA sled hockey.”
Unfortunately, helping grow the sport wound up ushering Calise off the ice.
“I wanted to do more Paralympics, but then more talent came through and I didn’t make the cut for the 2002 team, which went on to win gold,” Calise said. “It was really tough, because I wanted to be there. To this day it bothers me; it eats at me.”
However, he’s proud of part of “laying the foundation of the growth of sled hockey thereafter.”
After the gold-medal performance in 2002, Team USA won the bronze in 2006, and then captured the gold again in 2010, 2014 and 2018. The event is now called Para ice hockey.
“Being in the 1998 Paralympic Games certainly was one of the biggest joys of my life and sports certainly helped set me up for success,” Calise said.
“When I first got injured, I really didn’t think much about people with disabilities, and I wasn’t sure what my life would be. But I was fortunate enough to be able to find sport, and when I found sport, I realized it was something that really made me whole again.”
Finding His Calling
And sports led Calise into advocacy for people with disabilities. While he said most people are familiar with wheelchair basketball, other sports were still developing, such as sled hockey. He realized more and bigger programs were needed.
Calise left the non-profit sector to work in the Capital Projects Division of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
“I took one of the biggest parks systems in the country, and worked to make it accessible,” he said.
While he used the Americans with Disabilities Act as a guideline, he had to improvise and went above and beyond what was on paper.
“They don’t mention how to make an ice hockey rink accessible, so we had to really design standards that allowed for that,” he said.
Calise, who nowadays is an avid handcycler and mono-skier, did some consulting for the New York’s 2012 Olympic and Paralympic bid, and also spoke to Chicago for its 2016 bid.
He is involved locally with an organization called the Wheelchair Sports Federation. Calise knew current Para ice hockey stars Jack Wallace and Josh Pauls when they were kids and mentored two-time rugby Paralympic medalist Nick Springer.
“Being engaged with the youth and showing them what their opportunity is, so they can grow up with sport and be able to represent our country at a high level is certainly something that I’m always committed to,” Calise said. “And I want to see a lot of New York City athletes participate in the Paralympic Games.”
Of course, the coronavirus has led to the postponement of the Tokyo Games.
It has also brought new challenges for Calise’s office.
“Covid 19 has certainly thrown us for a loop,” Calise said.
He and his staff have been working to make sure that people with disabilities have access to protective equipment, healthcare, transportation and food delivery, since some have compromised immune systems and can’t shop for themselves. With schools and office meetings moving online, they are trying to make sure everyone has access to the digital platforms they need.
New York is part of a national initiative, called Empowered Cities, Calise said, “really making sure that we’re all empowered together and that we are able to provide services to people throughout our cities and more importantly our country.”
One of the criticisms of the ADA has been that it has decreased the employment rates for people with disabilities. Calise said the unemployment rate for people with disabilities throughout America is about 80 percent.
“Real jobs with real pay and real benefits are certainly what is lacking,” he said.
The pandemic could actually help in this area.
“There are so many times that people with disabilities ask for reasonable accommodations to work at home and they were denied it,” Calise said.
A reasonable accommodation could be special equipment, such as a screen reader for a person with a visual disability, or an accessible bathroom.
“What is everybody doing now? Having that reasonable accommodation at home, right?” Calise said. “So this, hopefully, is an opportunity for people with disabilities to work from home.”
The 30th anniversary of the ADA will be celebrated today with a Disability Unite Festival online today. “It’s just a way to kind of bring the community together in these awkward times and still celebrate the ADA,” Calise said.
And it’s a time to look ahead.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Calise said. “These next 30 years are going to really push things to the limit, and ensure that people with disabilities have access to everything.
In an ideal world, Calise’s job would no longer exist.
“If the world is accessible,” he said, “then I’ve done my job.”