IAP 2020-E1: Victor Calise, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

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In this episode:

Victor regales the host, Mark Miller, with vignettes on how he and his team work to accommodate the almost one million people with disabilities living in New York City in all boroughs, as well as the thousands of tourists with disabilities who visit each year. They discuss the unique challenges of each borough when it comes to accommodating PWDs, and specific examples of has been implemented in Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and other areas of the city to make it more accessible.

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Listen to IAP 2020-E1: Victor Calise

Links of Interest

NYC Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities Website

AccessibleNYC - Our Annual Report on the State of Persons with Disabilities in NYC

Transcription- Hey, welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility podcast brought to you by the Paciello Group and it's Affiliate Interactive Accessibility. I am your host, Mark Miller, thanking you for helping us keep it accessible. Hey, do us a favor. If you're enjoying the IAP, share it. Tell someone about it. Hey, even link to it from your Accessible podcast. All right, welcome everybody. Thanks for listening. I am here today with, Victor Calise. Yes, I said, Calise. We were talking about before we jumped on the podcast and I have found out he truly is the father of dragons with three Calise daughters. But more importantly, he's the Commissioner of the New York Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. And amongst many things that he does, he actually advises the Mayor and agency partners on accessibility issues. So with that, Victor, welcome to the IAP.

- [Victor] Oh, I'm happy to be here. And correction, I have two dragons not three.

- Oh, you know what I was thinking about the actual number of dragons on "Game of Thrones," and I thought it three so.

- [Victor] Yeah, so I have two so there you go.

- Two dragons as daughters is probably quite enough.

- [Victor] Yes, that it is. My wife and I like to joke that we are the parents of dragons.

- Well, we'll have to give you one of those long Game of Thrones names like parents of dragons, commissioner of disability, breaker of something.

- [Victor] Yeah, that sounds great, I like that.

- You like that, it makes you sound-- Well, you are important. I was gonna say, makes you sound important, but you are important. So, talk to me a little bit, you know, I obviously read up on what you do and what your background is. And this is no, like, joke, working for the City of New York and having something as big on your plate as trying to make New York the most accessible city in the world. Right, I think that's exactly how you put it. So, talk to me a little bit about what you do and what it's like working for New York.

- [Victor] Sure, though, you said it right, right. We are trying to make New York City the most accessible city in the world. And when we say that people are often like, "Oh my God, look at the infrastructure. "Look at your city as a whole." And people forget that when they see New York City, they just think of Manhattan because those are the big buildings. We are actually bigger than that. Were five boroughs with Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx and Manhattan. So we are even bigger than, let's say what people see on TV. And we have about over 900,000 people with disabilities that live in New York City, which is about 11% of the population. We have about nine million people with disabilities that come visit the city every year. And it's pretty big. Those are just people with disabilities alone, not talking about the general population which is over eight million people and and 60 million visitors. So, this is pretty big, I mean, I often like to say, that sometimes the number of people with disabilities are the size of countries around the world,

- That's true.

- in New York City.

- Yeah, we have that statistic, and you're absolutely right. It's a huge, huge population of people.

- [Victor] And it comes with that diversity, right. How do you ensure that we're building accessibility for everyone: People with cognitive disabilities. People with physical disabilities. People with visual disabilities. People who are deaf and hard of hearing. And we have to think about that holistically. And we can't just zoom in on one group and say," Hey, we got this done, right?" Accessibility is so broad in it's scope, that we have to consider all of it. And within Office, we have to think about that. And people expect things out of New York City, and especially the advocates. And the advocates that push us and measure us, and want us to do more. And we're expected to do that because that's what government's supposed to do.

- You know, New York City is clearly the sort of special challenge, that's probably only rivaled by a handful of other cities in U.S., right? Do you find, like, you know, you listed the five boroughs. Do you find that you have to segment it up in different areas of the city in order to do it properly? Or do you look at it as one whole, holistic approach to all five boroughs? Are there, you know, are there areas that are more difficult? Is one boroughs more difficult than the other, For whatever reason to really address accessibility?

- [Victor] Well, I think each borough definitely has their certain areas that need to be, nah, I wouldn't say specialized, but every borough is its own unique part. And so if we think about Eastern Queens, and they really have an area where it's not served in transportation, that well. We have to figure out, how we get people with disabilities around in the transportation model, faster and quicker from those areas. And Manhattan is very condensed, and we have to think about that. And Staten Island is very spread out. So we have to think about that. So each borough comes with its own challenge, and there's different advocates that advocate in some areas more than others. And we have to pay attention to that. So sometimes it's borough-by-borough approach, but it's really working with the advocates overall and finding out what they need. And some advocates will say we do a great job, and other advocates say we don't do a good job, and I guess that's part of the scope of government. And trying to reach everyone is what we try to do. And we do that in lots of different ways. We host meetings across the city. We have outreach coordinators that go out. We hold the biggest Disability Pride Parade in the world. We hold ADA awards. We hold different groups that we work with, meetings. So it's broad in its scope.

- Wow, so to that point, we were actually there for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, right. Which was right in Time Square, and I have my producer Marissa here with me. Say hi, Marissa.

- [Marissa] Hi.

- [Victor] Hello Marissa.

- [Marissa] Hi.

- Marissa actually went to Time Square for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and she was with one of our bosses, right. This gentleman named Matt that works for Vispero and the Paciello Group and he's blind, right, he does a lot of traveling. And you guys, he was with you, right? Matt was with you, Marissa, and you guys actually saw a Broadway show or he did is that right?

- We did.

- So talk to me about Matt's experience getting around Time Square.

- Matt is very capable. I forget that he is blind most of the time until he bumps into me . But, it was actually, like, Matt, I was also with a woman from Wells Fargo and they were both incredibly competent. She was blind as well. i think the biggest issue that she ran into was having enough room for her service dog. So we went to a restaurant. We went to a Broadway show. And sometimes space was a little tight, just because there's not always a forethought to put place for animals in a restaurant. But you know, this is something that you work around.

- But overall, I mean, I think, if what you were saying, is that you didn't experience Matt's, or either one of their, kind of, disabilities. That, generally speaking, navigating the city was pretty good for them.

- [Marissa] Yeah, I mean--

- [Victor] And there's a lot that we've done in Time Square. We've redesigned Time Square. There used to be a lot of cars that drove through there. It's more pedestrian-friendly than ever it was before. We've added a lot of curb cuts that are through there, and detectable warnings. We have bike lanes that are there, which can be obstacles for people with disabilities because there're quite lanes that we've added. But nonetheless, we've really thought about this. And we have a person that works in the Department of Transportation that's looking at design and construction, and ensuring that accessibility is happening. And we've done that in lots of different agencies, not just the Department of Transportation. We're looking at Department of Cultural Affairs. So when we redone our cultural plan, we ensured that accessibility was in there that allowed for funding for disability groups, as well as talking about employment of people with disabilities, and more importantly, disabilities as artists, the artists as disabilities, artists with disabilities, excuse me. I think I got that all wrong and right in the same sentence.

- You know, you eventually got it around to it. That's all I care about. I don't get my kid's names right so that stuff just takes me for ever.

- [Victor] We've done that in the Parks Department. So we have Disability Services facilitators that actually live in agencies that are looking at not only design and construction, but programs and services that we are putting together.

- [Marissa] That sounds awesome.

- And I would imagine, you know, just thinking about all those things, transportation, foot traffic, Foot traffic in Time Square. My wife and kids, and I were in Time Square. It was got to be the worst possible time for foot traffic and that was between Christmas and New Year's. And it was like shoulder-to-shoulder, is not even the right way to describe it. There was times where foot traffic was literally gridlocked through certain areas. Like around Rockefeller Center, and some of those real high, you know, where everybody's going at that time of year. So I would imagine that there's just amazing challenges when you're dealing with that kind of, that number of people. There's amazing challenges when it comes to people with disabilities. What are, like, are there a unique set of things that you think being that you're New York City, that you really have to think about, above and beyond, what some other cities might, in terms of accommodating people with disabilities, especially on foot?

- [Victor] Yeah well, that's interesting, right? Again we're talking, you're talking about one specific area right. Time Square is really congested. And there's so many other parts of the city that I could think of that are congested as well. So we think of areas like the Brooklyn Bridge to walk over, or Highline Park. Those are really congested areas, but we don't, when we're considering that we're thinking about the overall accessibility, right. We're looking at paths of travel. And when we look at paths of travel, and like some public places, we think about, especially in our parks design, how we can go over and beyond the mere codes and standards. And we've really pushed our inclusive design guidelines, that looks at ADA angles above and beyond that. And those are some of the things that we, kind of, think about, when we have the ability to design. But again there's so much space that we have to think about. And we only have so much to work with. Excuse me. But when we do have a landscape that we can work with: like we've done some really good stuff in Brooklyn Bridge Park and opening up spaces. And we continue to look at parks as a whole because we have the ability to do that there, and our streetscapes are changing. And people are requiring more space on the sidewalk. And our cities are changing from, or trying to change from less cars and more pedestrian paths. So we've expanded that in certain areas. And the Department of Transportation's really been looking at opening up those spaces as well.

- [Marissa] That's great.

- So, I think it's really interesting that you say that you guys are really thinking about not just meeting the requirements of the ADA, but going above and beyond right. Sort of setting that standard for yourself and for the city. Do you have examples of things where you've really gone above and beyond with some of the accommodations you've put in the city?

- [Victor] So you know, we are looking at one of our street, a couple of things I'm gonna talk about street infrastructure is our LinkNYC. Their kiosk that go on the street, that are on the street, and we did a whole request for proposal, years ago, to reinvent, a request for information first, and then request for proposal to reinvent the payphone. And when we did that, we drove a lot of accessibility requirements in there, height ranges, TalkBack features, color contrast, Braille on buttons. And those are all things that we were able to push, and be able to say, "Hey, you know what, we have an ability to change this." And if we're gonna make a smart city, a smart city needs to be accessible. So we add a lot of smart city technology in there, continue to do that. We're looking at connected vehicles, and how we can leverage technology messaging, like vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicle-to-individuals. And the goal was to increase in efficiency and decrease accidents for some people disabilities, so people don't get hurt on the streets. 'Cause, that's really important for us to do. And how do we communicate with people? How does technology communicate with people who are trying to cross the street? We added more accessible pedestrian signals on the street, continue to do so. And eventually, how is all this connected the pedestrians so they can get across the street safely? It's all part of the Vision Zero initiative that we have.

- I was just about to ask, listening to you say all that, do you find that there's circumstances where you guys are really working hard to accommodate and go above and beyond for people with disabilities? And that ends up informing a better way for all pedestrians, for all people that are trying to navigate the city?

- [Victor] Absolutely. And we have to think about age-friendly as well. And how do we ensure that people who are aging, 'cause aging has some of the similar disabilities of crossing the street. But just a simple thing as crossing the street, right? We've added bike lanes and they're quiet now. And that has really disconnected people with visual disabilities from the car process. And we have to figure out a way that we can do that. And acceptable pedestrian signals are just one way that doesn't help just people with visual disabilities, it helps the aging as well. So they know exactly when to cross the street. But there's a lot of crossover. If I think about it, and I try to roll down the street. When I'm crossing the street, everyone's on the curb cuts. Why? Because it's easy. It makes sense. Everyone wants that curb cut. We've been adding the automatic doors in our buildings, right? And everyone use them because they make sense, right? They're created for people with disabilities. And I think technology is the whole, whatever's made for people with disabilities, carries over, right? And let's think about Netflix for a second. I don't know any kid under the age of 14 that doesn't watch it with captioning on, right. That was made for people with disabilities. So there's a lot of carry over for people with disabilities. And it's really, really important for us to kind of push, educate, and show people the versatility of accessibility.

- Yeah, and I think that's really great. And one of the things that we struggle with, 'cause accessibility of basically, the quick way to think about it is, we help people make their websites accessible. And if we we have a very similar experience, where a lot of things that we do actually help all users. But it's so, like, there's so many things, i think that we have to thank that Accessibility Initiative for. I mean, like you mentioned, is simply, if you're in a crowded, noisy bar, and the game's on, and you're able to follow the game, because captioning's on. That wasn't there, that wasn't built for a crowded, noisy bar. That was built for people with disabilities. But, everybody in that circumstance can benefit from that feature. And like you said, curb cutouts, little ramps coming off the sidewalks. I was pushing my around in a stroller. I love those things, you know,

- [Victor] Everyone does, right? Parents with strollers, absolutely, are like one of the biggest consumers of accessibility projects that we place around the city. Why not? And that's what's important. It's about driving that. But, like you said, right, hearing the New York Mets or the New York Rangers, you know, on TV when they score that goal or hit that home run. It's like, and you're not able, you know, you could see it on the screen, right, by the words now, and that's really important.

- Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that's one of the, you know, the two points that you brought up today, are important in all types of accessibility situations, really are the fact that our elderly, or my parents, right? My parents, your parents the baby boomers, are getting older. They're collecting disabilities as they get older. So these things are gonna help them navigate city streets that they're used to navigating already, but now may need some accommodations to navigate.

- [Victor] Yeah, and we, the city of New York, has worked with Mass Transit Authority, our state partners, to include more information. Specifically on their buses that actually have true readouts right now, that you can actually hear when you're on the bus. We have, which has been improving things, we now have bus time that's on the street, that some could hit an APS type and it'll tell them when the bus is coming. So it reads things out aloud. We're improving making fare gates wider. And our trains, we're working on making our accessibility in our subway stations more accessible, adding more elevators. But yeah, it all crosses over.

- [Marissa] So, Victor tell me, what is the initiative that you're most proud of, that you've been able to accomplish while you've been in this position?

- [Victor] You know, there's a lot, and our office works really hard every day to ensure that everything is accessible. But there's so many things to point out. I think one of the things that we know, that we don't specifically see anywhere in the world, at this given moment, is access to accessible taxis in the for-hire vehicle sector, or the ride sharing app sector. We, the City of New York, are the only city in the world, at this particular moment, to be adding more accessible for-hire vehicles and ride sharing vehicles on the street. We're the only ones to put a cap on the number of vehicles. The only one to pass rules that will decrease wait time for people with disabilities. Increase the number of taxis that are on the street. And companies, now, have to share data with us. Which they don't do with other cities, and that's key. And we've also, that our cap has gone so far, that they can't put any regular vehicles on the street. The only vehicles they can put on the street, are accessible vehicles.

- [Marissa] Yeah, that is great.

- [Victor] I mean, that's one of the things. And then if I look at some of our local laws that have just been passed, which is Local Law 26 for website accessibility. It actually allowed us to have a digital accessibility coordinator. The first in the City of New York that's responsible for accessibility for websites, that is working backwards to address issues. We've created templates for accessibility.

- [Marissa] That's wonderful. And then we're doing a lot educating agencies on, not only website accessibility, but social media accessibility. How do you post, for accessibility when you're on Twitter and Instagram. So we do a lot with that for accessibility. So those are just a couple of things. But there's so much to be proud of in regards to what we're doing and cross collaboration. We held, was it, a couple of, like a month or so ago, we held the first convenings of Mayor's Office with people with disabilities around the country. So we had about 13 offices and we have people from Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Huston, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia. And we were able to convene all these offices to really talk about the issues that we're all having. And then they're similar in a of lot of ways. But, this is the way that we think we need collaboration. Just like we work with you guys on DiCon. Having Matt and the group together to be able to pull a big thing off, like Global Accessibility Awareness Day. So those are things that we're proud of at this particular moment.

- [Marissa] That sounds awesome.

- You guys seem like you're among the leaders, if not the leader in accessibility when it comes to a city. Do you find that in those groups, that there are certain things, and if so, like, what are they that you're helping other cities with?

- [Victor] I think we're all helping each other, and I have been working a lot with San Francisco, not San Francisco, with Los Angeles and Chicago lately. And some cities are doing different things. So for instance, we have a number of accessible taxis here, and what's the great thing is, we have them on the street. And a lot of advocates would say that they love the accessibility of taxis but they don't like to be loaded from the rear. And in Chicago, they have an ordinance that just is side entry for accessible taxis. That's great, right? And just like understanding what other cities are doing we can use each other as resources to be able to change that is important. And we see other things that are happening in accessibility websites, and outreach like in Los Angeles that we'd like to get more behind. And some people have bigger staff than others, and of course, I'm pushing for New York City to be the best. And that friendly competition is certainly something that is benefited and is benefiting all of us.

- For sure. For sure. Well, that's great. We need to wrap up here pretty soon. But before we do, what do you think is next for New York? Like, what's the next big thing that, you think, you guys will accomplish from an accessibility standpoint? The next, you know, few years or so.

- [Victor] So as I think about the next couple of years, 'cause that's what we have left in Office here. I think about what do we really need to get done? Well, 79% of people from the working age of 18 to 64 in New York City are jobless. And we have an initiative called NYC: ATWORK. It's a public-private partnership, funded by many different people like Institute for Career Development, the Poses Family Foundation, the Nielsen Foundation and the Kessler Foundation, and of course, our ACCES-VR system here in New York. And we're all working together to be able to bridge that gap. We've employed hundreds of people right now. We wanna continue to do that, bridging that gap, filling that digital divide that's out there. Being able to bring digital literacy is important, and accessibility in buildings that we hear so often. So I think those are the next the things that we're going to be concentrating on, along with housing financial empowerment. So two years left, we've got a lot of work to do. I would like to say we're on autopilot, but, we are to a degree, but we're pushing new initiatives everywhere we can, and those are the things that we're gonna end with.

- For sure, Marissa any last questions before we go?

- [Marissa] I can't think of anything interesting--

- [Victor] Right, come to New York. I'm probably not pronouncing my, Rs, because I'm a New Yorker, but I'm okay with that. But, come to New York, check out our theater we added accessibility in our theaters. We've added more accessibility on our streets, our streetscape and everything. And if you see something wrong, which people do, where we're not opposed to feedback. So thank you for having me.

- Yeah, you're welcome. And I'll tell you, both Marissa and I, you know, we have plenty of friends with disabilities obviously being in the work that we do. So oftentimes, when we do leave the house, and we do visit New York City, that's important to us. So I'm gonna say thank you, for me for all that you do. It sounds like you've accomplished a lot and it's really, really. We like here, and that somebody focused so much on accessibility. And I especially like hearing that you guys are going above and beyond just basic regulations to really, truly try to make an experience for people with disabilities. That's not just doable, but also enjoyable. So, appreciate that.

- [Victor] All right, thanks so much.

- You're welcome. This is Mark Miller, thanking Victor and Marissa and reminding you to keep it accessible.

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