Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

How To Make Disability Accommodation And Inclusion The New Working Norm With Commissioner Victor Calise

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with red hair and glasses, and Victor Calise, a White man with short hair, tie, and suit.

Join Change Catalyst Founder & CEO Melinda Briana Epler with Commissioner Victor Calise, on discussing how to make disability accommodation the new norm in the working environment.

We talked about Commissioner Victor Calise’s disability journey and how he turned it into a strength, becoming one of the most innovative advocates for disability. In this rich conversation, we learned about:

  • The forward-thinking work NY is doing in collaboration with other cities to build inclusive working environments.
  • The need for ‘accommodation’ of the disabled community and how Covid-19 has helped accelerate the workplace’s transformation.
  • The impact of outdated regulations on the community
  • How we should not separate disability from the other movement fighting for a more inclusive working environment.

Additional Resources:



“People with disabilities who didn’t have the opportunity to get to work because of their disability didn’t allow them to for transportation or immune reasons, whatever that might be, now is the opportunity. It is important because people with disabilities live in poverty and a way to get them up from poverty is through work.”

“The reality is that people with disabilities aren’t really disabled. It is our environments that disable us. If we can fix those environments so we can live our lives there is no such thing as disability.”


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Guest Speaker
Victor Calise, a White man with short hair, tie, and suit.

Commissioner Victor Calise
Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

As Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Victor Calise advocates for the disability community in all City decision-making. Commissioner Calise chairs the Accessibility Committee of the City Building Code and leads efforts to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce through the NYC:ATWORK employment initiative. He also ensures that disability is at the forefront of the city’s emerging technologies including communication modes, autonomous vehicles, and digital accessibility. Recognized as an expert on disability, the Commissioner frequently participates in national and international conferences. A dedicated public servant, Calise previously led efforts within the Department of Parks and Recreation to make the city’s park system—one of the most complex in the world—accessible in accordance with the Inclusive Design Guidelines. Calise—an avid athlete—competed in the 1998 Paralympic Games as a member of the U.S. national sled hockey team. A native New Yorker, he is married with two daughters.


MELINDA EPLER: Hi, everyone. As we are waiting for folks to join, I am just going to describe the slides for anybody who is blind, low vision or is on the phone. This is our video and podcast series Leading with Empathy & Allyship, changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries and the slide has a group of diverse faces of the many guests we have had on the show. This is episode 27. A conversation with Commissioner Victor Calise. This is created by changecatalyst.co with our logo which is black, red and white. Thank you to Interpreter Now. Interpreter-now.com for sponsoring our ASL interpreters. Kalina Anderson is here today. We have a code of conduct. You can find more that tcin.co/COC. Just be find. Next episode coming up we have November 24th, the emotional tax and the role of an inclusive leader with Andrea Tatum and then the future of belonging with Kat Gordon. Our podcast is available on pretty much any podcast platform from SoundCloud, Google Play, Apple, iTunes, Spotify, Etc. All right. If we could take down our slides we will get started. Well, welcome everyone to Leading with Empathy & Allyship. This is a live event and podcast series. I am Melinda Briana Epler the Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting and events. In this series, we go deep, get real and explore tangible, actionable steps we can all take to be better allies and advocates for each other. As you join today, please, introduce yourselves and let us know where you are tuning in from, who you are and anything you want to share. I invite you to continue to engage with us during our time together. So today we are speaking with Victor Commissioner for New York City Mayor’s disability office. On the screen we have Kalina who is from Interpreter Now. Apologies, Kalina, I am speaking really fast at the beginning. I say this ever week. That’s one thing we have to remember when we have interpreters and Maggie is behind the scenes also captioning and typing away. This is live CART captioning. You have want to open closed caption at the bottom of your screen and then you can adjust it as you like there. Thanks, Andy, for introducing yourself.

Thanks to our team, Renzo, Sally, Antonia, Juliet who among other things are monitoring the chat and behind the scenes doing lots to make this all happen. Yeah, use the chat for your aha moments and let us know what is resonating for you. If you have questions, we will definitely spend time with questions towards the end, so please, use the Q&A function for that so we can find them easily. Awesome. So, Commissioner, could we first start by talking about your story? Where did you start? How did you end up here doing this work that you do? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: It is an interesting spin but first I want to Thank you the Change Catalyst Team for having me. Melinda, thank you for having me. I apologize to the interpreters ahead of time. I am going to try to talk slow but being a quick-talking New Yorker it is a little tough. But nonetheless, thank you, everyone. Pleasure to be here. Yeah, I go back. I go back some time. I have been in government for 14 years but if I go all the way back I was a plumber before I was injured in a spinal cord injury. I was a plumber when I was a kid. Coming from a big blue collar background. I was riding my bicycle and flew over the handle bars into a tree and broke my back and that left me paralyzed from the chest down. I am a T-6 paraplegic. At that point, I didn’t know what my life was going to be. I knew I couldn’t go back to doing what I wanted to do. I was nervous and didn’t know how to identify with disability and didn’t even really know what disability was. I didn’t have a disability growing up. I wouldn’t say I was fortunate because I am happy for my disability and I think it is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I am grateful for it in lots of different ways. I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree in sports management. That sports management degree I leveraged in adaptive sport. I worked for an organization called Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association in their sports and recreation department and worked basically helping veterans transition into sport or playing bedside games actually like checkers and chess at the VA hospital and then working to get them up and about and out and did a lot of good workaround that. Eventually, I competed in the 1998 para Olympic games. I am on the first U.S.-led hockey team. No, I didn’t wear a medal. We are actually the only team not to win a medal but we were the first so I will give it that. Then I was working on the NYC 2012 Olympic and Paralympics bid and connected with the Parks Department. I said I would like to make the parks in New York City adapted for people with disabilities and low and behold I got hired in the Parks Department and led up a transition plan to make New York City’s parks the most accessible in the world. We ensured that by making sure people were included in the design and construction and we did a lot of work in design and construction that makes playgrounds and parks accessible for people with disabilities. And I would argue some of the most accessible parks in the world. I was lucky enough to be noticed and put forward for a job here at the Mayor’s office under the Bloomberg administration back in 2012. I eventually became Commissioner through the Bloomberg administration and from there, when the De Blazio administration came in, I was the only Commissioner who was kept. Our vision and mission is to make New York City the most accessible cities in the world. We are one of the oldest cities in America, we have a lot of cham challenges but it doesn’t mean accessible isn’t available. Looking at taxies and ride HP sharing apps and we are probably one of the most accessible in the country. Our park systems, the Department of Transportation and working to make secrete scapes more accessible. Our cultural plan to ensure people with disabilities can get into cultural institutions, are hired by them and disabled artists and how do they get represented in that scope? As well as employment ensuring that people with disabilities are employed in New York City. Very important because 79% of people with disabilities from the working age of 16-64 are jobless and we have to do something about that. Financial empowerment. Our empowered New York City Initiative to ensure people have access to financial counseling. And accessible smart cities and everything the city has to offer. That’s kind of my path to where I am now. I hope I didn’t go on too much. 

MELINDA EPLER: No, no, it is great. You are looking at this from an ecosystem level which I think is really important. When we are working in our workplaces, I think making sure we are looking at the whole ecosystem is very important. Appreciate you sharing your story. Could you say what accessibility is? What it means to you? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yeah, accessibility is a pretty broad term. I hear it in so many different ways but for us it is about access to everything the city has to offer. If it is our street scape, if it is our storefronts, city government, it’s everything. Making sure that we have access to that. It could mean making sure our facilities are accessible; right? Making sure that we could get on our transportation systems. The reality is that people with disabilities aren’t really disabled. It is our environments that disable us. If we can fix those environments so we can live our lives, there is no such thing as disability. We continue to think about that and, the disabled community has lots of different views on this, but one thing is for sure and that’s if we have access like everyone else we are just people. That’s what we are. We want to be seen as that person and that’s it. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. I want to demystify accommodation a bit but I want to give a bit of a story. I first met you, Commissioner, at our tech inclusion New York conference in 2016 where you spoke. We can share the link to that in our follow up materials to this episode. It was the conversation leading up to the event that was eye opening to me and I am sure you don’t remember it. [Laughter] One of the things you said that has always stuck with me and it is something I carry with me into my work training, working with people to develop more diverse, inclusive and equitable teams and companies. You said when we don’t know how to talk to people we often avoid them and avoidance can be one of the biggest problems for people with disabilities as well as for other underrepresented people, really. When I started to think about it because we are avoiding people and don’t know what to do or what to say it can lead to not hiring people, excluding people and not giving them opportunities. Just to give further context, earlier that year, in the spring we held an ability and tech summit in Berkeley, California, because we felt people with disabilities were being left out of the conversation around diversity and inclusion and wanted to bring that to the tech industry. Our event included a career fair and we had a really difficult time trying to get companies to join us at the career fair. What we heard over and over again from hiring teams was our people haven’t been trained to talk to people with disabilities or we don’t know how to accommodate them so we can’t come. It is illegal to not hire people with a disability and also, it is not that hard. Let’s try to demystify accommodations and inclusion as well. Maybe start with the hiring process. How do you think about the accommodation and the hiring process? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: I think you mentioned something a little bit earlier that people with disabilities are left out of the diversity conversation. And you really — I was talking about this earlier. You really have to listen to the conversation. I love it especially now with all the social justice stuff happening and on the forefront of people’s mind. Where are people with disabilities in these conversations? We are left out again. It frustrates me. We are diverse and intersect with race and gender and all of that. We just do. Why are we left out? I was listening to — reading something that talked about universities yesterday and how they have all these diversity lenses but the person doesn’t identify withing of these groups that are Black because they are Black and disabled and that’s because we are not seen. Why aren’t we seen? Because we are left out. Because people are worried about how do I talk to a person in a wheelchair? Or if this person has a speech disability and I can’t hear them right — do I ask them to say it again? Yes, you do because you don’t understand them. Or I am yelling at a person who is deaf. Well, you can continue to tell. They will still not hear you. You have to figure out a way around that. People are awkward about those things and I get it initially but you shouldn’t be because there is ways to communicate. It is like any other diversity thing. If you don’t have people around you, you will never be able to tackle it. Hiring a person with a disability is important and it will open up your mind and you can see they can do the work. Disability doesn’t mean they are not able to do anything. It is their talent that matters. How do you accommodate people with disabilities? Everyone thinks if I hire a person and can’t accommodate them I am going to get sued or I am not going to accommodate them because our place is not accessible or I have to get a sign language interpreter or I can’t get the screen reader because it will cost me too much. Well, there is ways around all of this. People don’t realize that some people who are blind are connected to organizations that will pay for that screen reader. That there are tax breaks along the way that you might be able to tap into and other resources that you can get, a sign language interpreter on a one-to-one meeting. Doing your research a little bit really matters because it is important to hire and really breakdown those barriers that we put up against us. If there is any one thing that I learned from our current administration now is people’s unconscious bias. Until I took that class, I never realized it and once I did it is like that’s why I think that way. We grow up a certain way or in a certain neighborhood or around a certain environment, and we are kind of told through that that you are supposed to think that way, but once you start opening up your world and realizing it and then recognizing why you have that unconscious bias then you are really able to move forward. And accommodations are a part of that. I will give you an example in my office. I have a little person that works in my office. The accommodations that they need is a stool so they can look over the cubicle. What does that cost? $10. We have been able to implement programs we are able to connect people. American Sign Language. On our street scape through our link N Y C which is an accessible kiosk on the street. We are breaking down barriers so people have access and accessibility to our city. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, and we can’t say enough. Just ask. It is OK to ask. What do you need? You know. When I — I have a friend who is deaf and when I first met him was at the Tech Inclusion conference and he advocated for himself to have sign language interpreters and I wanted to talk to him about a summit and I realized I didn’t know how to arrange a call with a Deaf person. It took me a lot longer than it should have and I finally realized I could ask him. I asked what is the best way to connect with you and he said any chat platform is fine. That’s something we already have, it is not an issue, it was not a big deal. We just have to ask. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: That’s funny because people with disabilities have the solution. They know. And we want to be asked, right? And that’s it. Yeah, spot-on. 

MELINDA EPLER: So let’s talk about the future of work. I know you excited about the future of work and can you talk about what you are most excited about and how people with disabilities are part of that future? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Sure. We have an initiative called NYC at work which is a private-public partnership to employ people with disabilities. We have been working across lots of areas to make sure people with disabilities are connected to high-growth sectors such as hospitality which is looking different in the COVID world, transportation, finance, technology, and the city because we have a role to play in this in hiring people with disabilities. We are strategically placed working with our service providers and working with our businesses to really employ people with disabilities. We do all of the vetting, we search for the talent, we connect people to the jobs because everyone wants someone that’s talented to work. You want to hire the best person because they have the talent. We have been successful employing over 300 people within a few years. We were doing pretty well. The jobs that we were able to place people in have been real jobs with real pay and real benefits. With that, we haven’t seen too much of a downturn in this economy. We don’t know what’s going to happen later on because they are real sector jobs. We are really excited about that. And what excites me the most is the platforms we are on. For far too long people with disabilities wanted to work from home and we constantly heard, no, no, no. Especially in city government we have heard that a lot. All of a sudden we turn on a switch and the next day we have 400,000 employees working from home. We have a little over 300,000 people in New York. It is a new opportunity, right? Because everybody now has that accommodation. We were talking about accommodations before. What’s the accommodation? Working from home. Here is another accommodation. Sorry, I am going to piggyback on the accommodations things because we were talking about it earlier. You know what an accommodation? How many times has a parent asked to leave because they had have a sick child at home or a baseball game or a recital after work? That’s an accommodation. Those are simple and easy to do. Now the work from home platform is easy to do. I am hoping this just really elevates that. People with disabilities who didn’t have the opportunity to get to work because of their disability didn’t allow them to for transportation or immune reasons, whatever that might be, now is the opportunity. It is important because people with disabilities live in poverty and a way to get them up from poverty is through work. I am excited about the work-from-home initiative but I do have concerns about leaving some people behind. 

MELINDA EPLER: What do you mean? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: These digital platforms are wonderful and a great way to connect. Today you have Uber accessibility here because you had sign language interpreter and you got the CART in there and you described the slides. Thank you for that. By the way, I am a white male, in a wheelchair with a blue jacket, blue shirt, pair of glasses and graying hair and a background that is beige with a map behind me. I want to describe myself. Sorry. These platforms and the recognition of this is important. But I mentioned people with disabilities live in poverty. How are people going to get connected devices? How are they going to get the internet services that’s there? I am concerned about that in a big way because we don’t want to leave people behind. Originally, when we started, we had a weekly call with all of our constituents around the city and anyone can call in and right away we realized we were not having the dial-in because we were leaving a segment out. I want to ensure that people with disabilities can get that access and have that. I am hoping that in the new federal administration, the Biden administration, that they really look at broadband in a way that connects people with disabilities to the resources that they need so they can have these opportunities just like everyone else. So it is a concern for me. That digital divide that we are creating. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yup, anything else you are seeing that — we talked about the effects of COVID-19 a bit with Tiffany Yu back in episode 5. Are you seeing any other impacts on disabled people in particular during the pandemic? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: I think in the beginning there were a bunch of things we saw and I will go over them a little bit. Health care. Getting health care was number one. The rationing of care is an issue. Am I going to go to the hospital and be judged because I have a disability and they don’t? Will they look at me and not give me the care I need? That was on the forefront of our minds and working with the New York City State Commission on human rights. The distribution of protective equipment and we were able to stand up services here in the city rather quickly to ensure that people with disabilities had access to that and also their health care workers had it as well. We were able to have a delivery system and get that out. And then food insecurity because people were not able to get out of their house and get to places like they wanted to. We had to stand up these things quickly and because New York City’s city government is pretty nimble when this happened we were able to do a lot of that. So, yeah. Those were certainly concerns and very worrisome. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, so let’s talk about what you are doing across cities right now. Can you talk about the empowered cities initiative and why it is important? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Sure. We originally started — we have a complicated Medicaid system in America and it disenfranchised people with disabilities. If you make too much money they takeaway your benefits.

If you make too much money they will take away your health care and that’s a tough decision for people with disabilities. Sometimes they just would rather figure out ways to make ends meet because they want to have their health care workers that allow them to perform their activities of daily living. They need their medical so they can get their dollars. I am hoping in the new administration that this gets addressed because there is a lot of talk about that but in the meantime, we started an initiative called empowered NYC where it is free financial counseling for people with disabilities to understand these complications and figure out how to get into a Medicaid buy-in program and work and maintain their health care benefits and workers. We were able to stand this up through city community development that helped us put this through where New Yorkers can get free financial counseling. When we did that, City was interested in expanding this to other cities such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco with New York. We are working across those five cities. We are looking at COVID response, financial empowerment, housing, and employment. We are looking at all five of those cities and figuring out what one city may be doing over another, coming up with a roadmap and best practices that we all can follow, and along with that we will be building a website. We are doing that now and hopefully, by the end of the year we have it up and people can go and see what each and every city is doing. Really important to drive this forward because there are about 14 of these offices around the country. We have to really connect and make sure that all of them are empowered to be able to serve their constituents. 

MELINDA EPLER: And share best practices and learn from each other. That’s great. What are the five cities? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. 

MELINDA EPLER: And can you talk more specifically about some of the things that you are working on within the initiative? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yeah. So, again, looking at our employment piece and seeing how we could all employ people with disabilities. Looking at housing because in New York City 7% of all new affordable housing that is built is set aside for people with disabilities. So, to get that, you have to meet an income requirement and people with disabilities don’t meet that income requirement because their Medicaid, or Medicare or disability benefits keeps them under that benchmark. That’s how come empowered cities is important, or empowered NYC, because we can figure how to raise a person’s income so they can get into that affordable housing. So all of us do a different way of securing this housing. We want to find out what’s happening in Chicago. Maybe they are doing something better because they went through a lawsuit and had to revamp their housing and is it better than the New York City model? Same thing grows San Francisco. And looking at that, employment, financial power and housing because they are all interconnected. I am curious when this is all said and done because if there is something I can learn from Boston I want to know about. If there is something I can learn from San Francisco, I want to know about it because working in a bubble and not knowing what’s going on will never get us to move our cities forward. 

MELINDA EPLER: And can we talk a little bit more about hiring because it is — the statistic that you shared, 79% of people with disabilities in New York are not employed. That’s correct, right? And I can’t remember exactly off the top of my head what the statistics are nationally in the United States but they are not that much better. It is pretty low as well. There is real work that we need to do here and we all know, I think, that the benefits of dits and that so many of the products that make now are built with disabilities in mind and the more we hire people with disabilities, the more innovations we have especially within tech. What are things you are thinking about in terms of are you working with companies to motivate them to hire more people with disabilities? What are some of the things that we can do? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: One of things that we hear the most is that we can’t find the talent. How do we find the talent? We can’t find a person with a disability to fill the job. That’s one thing we are hearing. That’s number one. We put together a business development council with businesses made up of the high growth sectors of finance, transportation, retail, technology, so we have all these big companies and small businesses as well. We are hearing from them that we can’t find the talent, we aren’t sure what a reasonable accommodation is, if we hire a person with a disability we are not sure exactly how to advance them. We are the voice in that and breaking down the myth of what accommodations like we were talking about earlier. We are breaking down the myth that you can’t find the talent because we have a talent pipeline we draw from. We work with college, transitioning youth from high school in the workplace or into college appropriately, and we have a lot of people that are coming to us because they have been out of the workplace for so long. We have the talent and are matching that talent to that job whatever it may be. We are getting the job descriptions, we are getting the talent, we are doing the hard work and putting people with disabilities forward. In the end, people that are inside the labor force are really driving the future of work; right? We have people in our office that we hired with disabilities that are redefining what accessibility means in the tech world. Looking at things and social media engagement and all these things that are accessible. We are the future. We are the talent that’s out there. If you have an organization that’s working to push the talent, I think that’s important. In the past, a lot of people were sitting around a room with their service providers, people with disabilities sitting around with their service providers saying we can’t get jobs but was missing were the jobs. They were not talking to the businesses. So coordinating the service providers, the people with disabilities, and the jobs and having NYC at work in the middle bridging the gap has made all of the difference. 

MELINDA EPLER: For those of us in our workplaces looking to be better allies and create change answering that accommodation would be a big thing. If we do our tech conference again, I would create a resource for companies and say here it is right here. Just breakdown that barrier with information. A big piece of allyship is often education. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: And there is other ways to get people with disabilities engaged, right? Setting up internships. That’s certainly a way to be able to do things. They have — we have a state program called access VR, a vocational program, that actually pays the money for a person to work as an intern. You don’t even have to pay for that. The state will — they are just setup around the country. The state will help pay for those internships through four-year companies. This is a great way to start engaging. Reach out to your local vocational rehab places with your start and that’s certainly a good way to start. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. I am going to jump to questions in a few minutes, if anybody has a question, please, put it in the Q&A. This show is called Leading with Empathy & Allyship but I want to talk about allyship a bit. What is allyship look like for you? What would you most use from allies? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: The understanding that people with disabilities want to partake in anything that’s out there. That takes awhile to kind of get people to understand that, unfortunately. Once they do, it changes everything. We need allies to understand that people with disabilities want to participate in everything that is out there. These platforms, once again, have given ways into spaces that people have never had. We have been able to hold online classes during this pandemic. Workout classes, concerts, museum tours that were never available before. These are extraordinary things that are happening and people see this. They see this as a way to attract new clients. Just the engagement is extraordinary. I have seen it click in people’s minds about what it actually means to add accessibility. I will give an example of the Central Park Conservancy in New York. Advocated years ago because I worked in the Parks Department and talking with one of the designers ability accessibility and he would do what I asked but it wasn’t until he met with a constituent and realized their daughter had a disability and movement changed the way she behaved. When he was able to see adding an accessible swing made all of the difference it clicked with him. And I will tell you the Central Park Conservancy in all of their designs they do now, which is one of the biggest and beautiful parks in the country, goes over and accessibility rules because of that one instance. They are such an ally that everything they do has a disability lens on it. That clicked automatically. It is so great to get into the park and know that they care about the people that come through it. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Yeah, we are celebrating this year the 30th anniversary of the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. All the people that spent years and years of work there were allies that were a pat of that as well. Americans — the ADA is the bare minimum. A lot more needs to be done. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: If you think about disability, we are rooted in the Civil Rights Movement and that needed allies to move it around and we needed to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to move forward for ADA. There are always allies along the way. It is just about how we connect, engage and move policy forward. 

MELINDA EPLER: Can you think of a time when an ally has really made a difference in your life personally? I know I didn’t prompt you ahead of time so take a minute to think about. In the meantime, if you have questions or thoughts, please, put them in the Q&A for us. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yeah, I think when I worked for Parks Department, the Commissioner at the time gave me the ability to move forward in my job and pushed for an effective change and put me forward for this job eventually so was certainly an ally that helped. He leans on me for disability problems. It is not just a one-way street. It is a two-way street. 

MELINDA EPLER: As you are looking to the future for people with disabilities, the future for people with disabilities in the workplace, what else comes to mind? What else are you thinking about? What else is really important for us to be thinking about in 2021 and beyond? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: When you are connecting with people with disabilities, I want to add to what we were saying before, you don’t have to have all of the answers. Just the confidence to start the conversation. Just like you did for that person who is Deaf. How do I communicate? I think that’s really important. Not knowing that you don’t have to have the answers. You just have to have the willingness to move forward. Lots of things I am concerned about. I am concerned about the future of our country to move forward. For sure. And making sure that people with disabilities are included in every bit of that forward-moving progress. I am worried about what’s going to happen to our city financially as we come out of COVID and what that looks like. I don’t want to see a regression in services but cuts there concern me, for sure. These are real things. I I am worried about how the distribution of the vaccine going to be distributed to people with disabilities. As it appears that we are getting closer to that. So, yeah, COVID is certainly taking our world and turning it upside down and good and bad is happening in all of this. I think New York City is on a reset after this and what that looks like after this and all the outdoor dining facilities we are creating and making sure it they are accessible because if this is the new norm we can’t create instances where things aren’t accessible as we move forward in the future. This is all new. I worry about those things. 

MELINDA EPLER: Walking through the streets of San Francisco, the new creative ways that restaurants are working to put tables outside, I have noticed as a result there are no pathways and people with disabilities literally can’t get into the spaces. Yeah, I think we have to — in our innovation, we have to remember that, you know, it just takes one more thought, one more step. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yeah, it does. And the city of New York, we put out guidelines and I believe LA and San Francisco did too but sometimes people just in a rush to get everything out is concerning because we can’t be left behind in this. So, yeah. It’s real. Those are real issues because if you are blind and you use a white cane to get around and all of a sudden there is tables and chairs out in front that were never there before that’s a big learning curve. 

MELINDA EPLER: Or people standing in the way too. Yeah. We have a question from an attendee here saying this is a really informative session. Thank you. Are there ways that students who are passionate about social change could help get involved in creating change maybe in their university or college? Any recommendations that you have? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yes. Very interesting you should say that. I think one of the great things you should do is follow people with disabilities on your social media accounts. Just figure out kind of what’s happening. There is a big presence of the disabled communities on all these social media platforms. Think about how you post on your social media platforms. If you are on Instagram, do you describe your photo? If you are on Twitter are you using alt-text? These are things you should be looking at when you are posting and following people with disabilities is certainly a way to engage. If you are in university, are there groups that are out there that you can be involved with? Disabilities groups. Get involved in the conversations. Are you involved with business resource group through your company? There are disability groups that are out there. Get involved in that as well. Engage, put on a disability lens, don’t interject but just listen. I think those are good tips to get involved. 

MELINDA EPLER: And maybe ask too. We also have alt-text on Twitter images and image descriptions on our Instagram count so you have want to check ours out. We will also share some links on how to learn to do that. It is simple. Describe the image so if you can’t see it, you still know it. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yeah, it is not that hard. It’s really not. 

MELINDA EPLER: Darren has more of a comment than a question earlier in the chat. Speaking about the future of work, incorporating paid professionals with lived experience of disability into the design processes of any organizational will help companies be alive to and against real threat of creating products that increase barriers and exclude them with disabilities. 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: That’s true. How many times I have heard that people are looking to engage in the disabled community and expecting to get it free. It is kind of like, well, you don’t ask any other consultant for free things? Yes, disabled people should be paid for the work they are doing when you engage with them. Living experience is great and I wholeheartedly agree with that. We do that when we ask people to speak for us. Sometimes we would like to pay more but we are city government so we can only pay so much, so that in a way hurts us, but nonetheless we always look to pay the people that come into our work for sure. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. We had a great discussion at Tech Inclusion this year on inclusive design and how to use that effectively so we can also share that link if you want to know more about inclusive design practices and how to do that well. We have a question from Kate. Can you talk a little bit about digital access — about how digital access has become important in recent months? Has New York been able to pivot in some services to increase access? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Yes, we have pivoted a lot. When this all hit, we had to connect with the community as I mentioned earlier. We looked at so many different platforms from Microsoft Teams to Zoom to Google platforms. We had to make sure that they were accessible.

We put out some guidance on our website. Nyc.gov/disabilities. You can find that on the website. We broke it down about the accessibility on each platform. How to embed sign language, how to add CART. We moved quickly on that. We have robust information on how to make digital platforms accessible like social media platforms so you can find it again on our website. Also, we worked with our department of education to make sure that every kid with a disability that needed WiFi and connected devices got those and made sure those digital platforms were accessible so that you can get related services like speech and occupational and physical therapy. We dove really deep into all of this. We had to make sure that our maps for food delivery were accessible for people with visual disabilities. We have a team in-house that looks at everything. We had a lens on accessibility from the get-go. Having it embedded in our team allowed us to move really quickly and work with our department of health and mental hygiene for accessibility to those maps, accessibility to those surveys that we are putting on, and our mail deliveries for food and for protective equipment. Yeah, we did a lot and I am proud of it. We made it really accessible on our website. You can check out our virtual meeting guides, you can check out our digital accessibility guides. It is all on our website. Nyc.gov/disabilities. 

MELINDA EPLER: I see Jonathan in the chat shared the guide as well. We will share that on our website too when the podcast comes out next week. MJ asks are you working with developers, architects and city planning for more universal design and building houses? Wide doors in most new buildings and not only in 7% of the affordable housing but in all planned construction? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: When the city is building things we have an accessibility lens on it. When private developers are building things, we don’t have so much say of what goes on. When we effect that in lots of ways. It is built in connection with the city so people come through the office and ask for advice and we go over the accessibility codes and standards. And we chair the portion of the New York City building code. The accessible portion. Chapter 11 here. I am the chair of that committee. We are looking at that with accessibility and embedding everything that we can that goes over and beyond accessibility where we can or at least meets the minimum code. We did some great stuff on housing. Any new affordable housing that’s being built or housing in general in New York City, buildings that go up, we have a type B plus unit and they are adaptable units meaning that it is built with accessibility and if people put — I am trying to define this in a certain way. So the type B plus units are built and they are accessible. They also, in the walls, have all of the reinforcement for grab bars and if cabinets need to be removed they can remove the cabinets and they have that accessibility there. They are adaptable. You can adapt it to accessibility at any given phase. Pretty exciting to be able to have that. Technically there is accessibility in these apartments. You could change a door swing so it moves out instead of in. These are the ways that New York City moves forward on those type B plus units for housing. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Great. And I think — I am just looking at Darren’s comment. Anyone interested in accessible and inclusive smart cities might want to follow smart cities on Twitter. Any other resources you would recommend for people to learn more about accommodations or accessibility? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: Some of the tech stuff. There is a lot of companies doing some great things. There is world enable that is doing good stuff on this. Victor P’s group which I am pretty sure you know of. They are doing some good stuff. There is an organization out there called G3ICT that’s doing good stuff on web accessibility. Certainly smart Cities, check it out. And just look on disabled Twitter. It is all out there. Front and center, in your face, no holding back. I am a person with a disability and I want it all. 

MELINDA EPLER: And you should have it all. Yes. Yeah, 100%. Awesome. Well, thank you, Commissioner. Thank you for this. Appreciate you and appreciate our conversations always. Learned a lot. And thank you. Thanks to our audience for your great questions and engagement. Were you going to say more? 

COMMISSIONER CALISE: No, I just want to say thank you, Melinda. Any way I can help out, you can reach out to me. All our website, follow me wherever you want, and I am out there. Thank you for your time. I really appreciate it and it is always a pleasure to see you. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yes, likewise. So we will share links to many of the resources that we talked about once we release the podcast next week. You can go to our website changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries to see those links. If you want to learn more about inclusion for people with disabilities, we did talk about it in episode 23 with KR and episode 5 with Tiffany Yu. Both amazing leaders in this work. Join us each week for Leading with Empathy & Allyship. You can learn more by going to our website and signing up for your newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast and give us a review or a thumbs up on YouTube and share this with your friends and colleagues who could find this helpful. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. I see lots of thank yous in the chat. Appreciate you all. Take care. 


About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

In The Press

Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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If you’re looking for a way for remote teams to continue their learning and professional development, we’re now offering virtual allyship, inclusion and leadership trainings. We’ve also continued our consulting practice virtually. AND we now offer hourly coaching. Let us know if you’re interested in learning more!
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