I’d like to begin this column with the written equivalent of a moment of silence for the loss of a friend and colleague. Matthew Sapolin, the first-ever commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, passed away in late November after a long battle with cancer.
While Matt will always be remembered for his legacy of advocacy, and his powerful record of achievements on behalf of persons with disabilities, I think it was quite telling about him as an individual that he personified the word “able”. Blind since the age of five due to the disease to which he eventually succumbed, Matt was a talented musician and athlete – infinitely better known for the things he could do than for the things he couldn’t. To borrow a few words from his obituary in the New York Times, Matt’s blindness “informed his life, it did not narrow it.” Indeed, Matt lived life very broadly – and we were all the better for it.
As Commissioner, one of Matt’s goals was make yellow taxi service more accessible to those with disabilities. Between 2006 and 2008, he played a prominent role in the creation of the 231 wheelchair accessible taxicab medallions, which made New York City the nation’s leader in accessible taxicabs. He was likewise deeply invested in the two-year test of the accessible dispatch system to connect those wheelchair accessible cabs with passengers who needed them. The lessons learned from that pilot program proved invaluable in informing our current efforts..
At this month’s Commission meeting, the TLC passed regulations to facilitate the creation of a demand responsive wheelchair accessible taxi dispatch system. This system, supported by the industry, would invite wheelchair users to call 311 as early as this spring to have a taxicab vehicle dispatched to them on-demand. We will shortly follow these efforts with regulations on the For-Hire Vehicle side, creating a true five-borough solution.
Lastly, Matt’s leadership was evident when City committed to creating an additional 561 wheelchair accessible medallions (out of 1,500 new medallions) planned as part of the Five Borough Taxi Plan, bringing the total number to 800. While 1,500 is the number in the bill as passed by the State Legislature in June, that number may grow significantly to include many more accessible medallions.
Of course, these facets of Matt Sapolin’s legacy are just those related to taxicabs and for-hire vehicles; Matt’s passion also came to bear on housing issues and many other aspects of life as they relate to persons with disabilities.
While Matt’s expertise and perspective will be sorely missed, I know he would challenge us to continue to move forward, and to do everything feasible to enhance transportation options for persons with disabilities. This is a challenge we gratefully accept in his name. Rest in peace, Matt.