It’s been less than a month since Victor Calise was named the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, but his schedule is already overflowing with meetings on affordable housing, transportation, community involvement and a variety of other issues. “And it continues to get fuller as time goes,” he says.
Don’t think he’s complaining though; this is exactly what the former United Spinal employee and Paralympic athlete was hoping for: to be challenged. “It’s been great,” he says. “There are so many issues to deal with in trying to make sure we provide programs and services for people with disabilities and I think I have the passion to tackle them.”
Calise brings a unique set of personal and professional experience to the office that should serve him well in dealing with the complicated issues facing the disabled in our country’s most bustling metropolis. Prior to a bicycle accident in 1994, the lifelong New Yorker worked as a plumber and worked extensively on accessible remodeling.
Post-spinal cord injury, Calise got involved in sled hockey, which in turn led to a job as a recreational aide at Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, the predecessor to United Spinal. Over the next eight years, Calise worked his way up to United Spinal’s director of sports marketing. He says his time there was invaluable.
“I learned how to advocate for people with disabilities and to know what ADA law is,” he says. “I learned how important it is to be able to give people with disabilities the right to live their life properly so they can reintegrate into society and be able to hold down a job. Those lessons still stick with me to this day.”
While still working for United Spinal, Calise got involved with the bid to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York. The effort eventually lost out to London, but Calise established a relationship with the then-director of New York’s parks and recreation department. That eventually led to a position with the city as accessibility coordinator for the department.
In that role, Calise became a prominent advocate for wheelchair sports and worked to expand adaptive recreation opportunities. As an active skier and hand cycler, Calise never needed to look far for someone to testify to the importance of accessible recreation.
Fourteen years after he represented the United States as a member of the 1998 Paralympic sled hockey team at the 1998 Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano, Japan, Calise still competes at a regional level and volunteers with the New York Wheelchair Sports Federation. Calise credits his wife, Susan, with enabling him to stay on top of his busy life while also raising their two daughters.
He still keeps in touch with many of his coworkers and friends from United Spinal and is excited about the prospect of working with them to continue to improve accessibility in New York. He encourages any members with spinal cord injuries who have debated visiting because of access concerns to give the city a try, and to know that he and others are working to improve things.
“This city continues to make strides as far as making things accessible,” he says. “When you have an old city such as New York there are lots of things that aren’t accessible. Trying to figure out ways to make it accessible can be very challenging, but that’s not an excuse and not something we will let stop us.”
This story was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Life in Action magazine. You can access our digital archives here.