Friday, July 26 marked the 29th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In its honor, eight hundred New Yorkers with and without disabilities gathered over a barbecue on the lawn at Gracie Mansion to see Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) Commissioner Victor Calise recognize some of the city’s most crucial supporters of inclusion at the Sapolin Accessibility Awards.
The ceremony, which has occurred on or around the ADA’s anniversary for the past nineteen years, was named in the memory of former MOPD Commissioner Matthew Sapolin following his passing in 2011.
Calise told Our Town how his office determines whom to honor annually. “Over the course of the year, MOPD interacts with many organizations and individuals that provide exemplary services that increase accessibility for New Yorkers and visitors with disabilities,” he said. “Many are deserving of the Sapolin Accessibility Award and we take pride in choosing the award winners based on the impact of the organization/individual to increase accessibility, current events, and disability community input.”
The first award, for employment, was presented to Fountain House. “It’s a social enterprise initiative offering alternative employment opportunities and services to people with mental health issues, and some of whom have formerly been hospitalized or incarcerated,” Calise explained.
The Whitney Museum of American Art won the next award for its public service. “It has opened its doors to both audiences and artists with disabilities...The museum has an induction loop system in their theaters and provides assisted listening systems for tours and programs, large-print exhibition labels, and ASL tours with closed captioning,” Calise said. He also noted the Whitney’s initiatives to promote the work of artists with disabilities.
The New York Mets were awarded for their public accommodations, “despite the baseball allegiances of some people who live in this house,” Calise, a proud “Queens boy” joked, referencing de Blasio’s love for the Boston Red Sox.
Accommodations he cited included assisted listening devices, handheld radios, quiet areas, electrical outlets, captioning, a dedicated Access-A-Ride pick-up and drop-off location, free sensory bags with headphones, weighted lap pads, and fidget toys that are available on request.
For communication and technology, an award went to the NYPL’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library. Its Dimensions programs offers “free and hands-on training about best practices in tactile design, as well as ... hardware and software that anyone can use to start designing.”
The final award, named after the late mathematics professor and disability advocate Frieda Zames and presented to an advocate that “continue[s] to push us to do more,” went to Rick Surpin: Founder, President, and CEO of Independence Care System, a network of three affiliated organizations that offer various supports to adults with physical disabilities as well as seniors.
Calise then invited de Blasio up on the stage. After some banter about the mayor’s presidential ambitions, de Blasio proceeded to discuss plans to make the city more friendly to people with disabilities, ranging from government accountability to employment opportunities to a major development in the city’s planning. “This was the week we formally announced that we will create and build ramps at all 162,000 curbs in the five boroughs that need to be accessible,” he said. “We will accept nothing less than the day when every single ramp is done.”
Bryan Wigfall, who is involved with the CUNY Coaltion for Students with Disabilities, told this reporter that he is deeply satisified with the MOPD’s initiatives, though suggested that they could do more to promote themselves. “MOPD could be more successful by creating a commercial for its NYC at Work program,” Wigfall said.
Still, Anthony Phifer, Director of Disability Services at Medgar Evers College and part of the Mayor’s Task Force for Disability Issues in the Giuliani administration, said that despite the breakthroughs of the past 29 years, there is still more to do, such as more elevators in subway stations.
He also suggested a mindset to make the city as accessible as possible. “We need to have more meetings and we need to stick to our word,” Phifer said. “If we say we’re gonna do it, we need to get it done.”