by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York
Signed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has fostered independence, empowerment, and inclusion for millions of Americans. On 08.19.14, Anthony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library, welcomed Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) Commissioner Victor Calise , a few hundred friends and well-wishers, and the winners of the 2014 ADA Sapolin Awards. The awards, presented each year by the mayor and MOPD, recognize individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to increasing accessibility for people with disabilities, and an Advocacy Award to an individual or entity that has advocated on behalf of people with disabilities. The ADA Sapolin Awards are named for the late MOPD Commissioner Matthew Sapolin, who passed away in 2011, and the Advocacy Award is named in honor of the late Frieda Zames, a disability activist and mathematics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.
Marx started the evening by reminiscing about his mother’s role in working with people with challenging medical conditions. He stated: “New York is the capital of the diversity of experience of the world,” and added, “I could not be more proud to host this event here at this library, bringing this diversity of experience and insight – making sure that everyone has the opportunities they deserve.”
Mayor de Blasio noted that the library “is a place of inclusion, a place where inequality is addressed and equality fostered. I am so proud to join everyone tonight celebrating the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s a victory we should respect and celebrate over and over again.” He kicked off the festivities by thanking Commissioner Calise, saying, “Victor has done extraordinary things for this city.” He also noted, “Somehow he finds time for his athletic life as well,” and complemented the commissioner on his prowess as “an Olympic athlete who competed in 1998 at the Nagano Olympics on the Paralympics Sled Hockey Team.”
The mayor said that the “ADA is one of the greatest civil rights laws passed in the history of the United States of America.” He added: “This is a law that literally changed how we think, how we act… This was the world’s first civil rights bill for people with disabilities,” and, quoting Senator Tom Harkin, called it “the 20th century’s Emancipation Proclamation for all Americans with disabilities.” The general theme of the evening was how the ADA has created a more inclusive society. Mayor de Blasio recalled that “it used to be commonplace that people couldn’t go where they needed to go.” He praised the passage of the landmark legislation by saying that with ADA “we saw a different mindset that permeated all of our society, and made it clear it was not only illegal to discriminate, it was inappropriate, it was immoral to discriminate against people with disabilities. We know it’s ongoing work by definition… This is work that doesn’t end… We know that it’s the right mandate.”
Noting that there were nearly one million New Yorkers with disabilities, the mayor said that his administration had recently passed a rent increase exemption, known as the Disability Rent Increase Exemption, or DRIE for short. It established a revised income ceiling that has allowed at least 3,000 more families to afford decent housing. Among other specifics, he added that half of New York City’s yellow cabs will be accessible by the year 2020, noting that “this would be a difference-maker” since New York, as the biggest city in the country, was creating “an accessible, equal-opportunity life for those with disabilities.” He stressed that changes made in New York City serve as a powerful model for other cities, and joked that he had recently heard a song about New York – pausing for impact – “that says if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.”
The mayor also spoke about the need for safer and more accessible streets for all New Yorkers, and particularly for those with disabilities, saying, “All that is going to happen under the rubric of our Vision Zero plan.” He noted that we are all concerned by the high cost of housing, and said that his administration is doing something about it for people with disabilities. He then joked: “If you think that the rent is too damn high, you are definitely a New Yorker.”
Before conferring the awards, the mayor added: “We have partners all over the city who share this vision… There are so many activists, so many organizations fighting the fight, so many companies that believe in doing the right thing, so many individuals, so many institutions.” And he concluded by saying, “We celebrate these wonderful people and organizations with the ADA Sapolin Award, named in honor of the late Matthew Sapolin, the first commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, a trailblazer and extraordinary advocate.”
Joining the mayor in giving awards to Jet Blue, Theater Breaking through Barriers, Handi-Lift, New York Relay, and Christina Curry, MOPD Commissioner Calise also recalled his predecessor, saying: “We are here to celebrate the Sapolin Awards, and Commissioner Matthew Sapolin, who touched every one of us.” Calise thanked the New York Public Library, which “is accessible – and accessible on so many different levels,” and the staff of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities “for everything that you do.” He concluded: “We are working together to make NYC the most accessible city in the world.”
Accompanying photos show the Mayor, Commissioner Calise and his family and award winners, including representatives of JetBlue; Theater Breaking through Barriers (Nicholas Visellli); Handi-Lift (Doug Boydston); New York Relay (Mary Beth Mothersell); and Christina Curry, who received the Frieda Zames Advocacy Award.