In this week's One on 1 with Budd Mishkin, the first-ever commissioner of the city’s Office for People with Disabilities Matthew Sapolin shares the philosophies that have helped him thrive in all areas of his life.
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Be it at work or on the field playing his beloved beep baseball, Matthew Sapolin's mantra isn't so much why me, but why not?
"[I get that] from my mother and father instilling in me the value of enjoying life,” says Sapolin. “I'm not going to lie to you and tell you every moment is a happy moment. But we do our best to take every day in stride.”
It’s an attitude that's clearly reflected when Sapolin is playing a game specifically-designed for the blind and visually impaired that employs audio sensors in the bases and the ball.
He's been blind since the age of five.
At work, Sapolin helps New Yorkers with all types of disabilities, mostly in areas that Sapolin calls the big three: transportation, housing and employment.
His office gets about 200 calls a week, and thousands of hits on their website a year. All sorts of cases cross his desk, like the deaf college student with the noisy neighbor.
"The person who lived below her would play loud music with rumbling bass undertones,” says Sapolin. “This young woman would feel vibrations in her bedsprings and couldn't sleep at night to maintain her GPA in a prestigious masters program and I had not heard that before sitting in this seat.”
Sapolin has led the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities since 2002. He was named commissioner at a ceremony this summer honoring companies for good hiring practices involving the disabled.
"Matt you've made such a difference in the lives of so many people here tonight and around this city,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We're please to honor your hard work and devotion by naming you the agency's very first commissioner. Congratulations."
Sapolin says he learned how to be an advocate, long ago at home.
"As a young boy growing up, I lost my sight at five years old. I was mainstreamed through school. I saw my mother and father and family conduct advocacy to allow me in 1975 to be mainstreamed into the public school system,” says Sapolin. “I learned a little bit about advocacy there."
Sapolin calls his position "a dream job."
A job placement agency first got him involved in the disabilities field. He says he's grateful, but there are clearly still some mixed emotions.
"I was sent to an agency for people with disabilities. I wasn't sent to a bank or to the Department of Environmental Protection, or a hotel chain,” says Sapolin. “We strive to help explore ways for people with disabilities to have more exposure to career opportunities, so that not everybody who grows up with a disability to be a social worker."
"Plenty of us are good at that type of work but some of us are talented graphic designers and athletes and singers and songwriters and poets and everything else," says Sapolin. "It's not charity. It's not philanthropy to hire a person with a disability. It's a business model, that if you're doing your work correctly you are going to bring into your organization an individual who’s going to make a significant difference in your bottom line, your productivity. And will make your board of trustees and public very proud.”
Sapolin's blindness was caused by retinal blastoma, a cancer of the optic nerve. But even this he views from a positive vantage point.
"Losing your sight at five, in my case was a blessing,” says Sapolin. “Because it allowed me to learn things once. I didn't have to relearn to eat or tie my shoe."
"I deal with a lot of people who acquire disability later in life, some of whom adjust very well. Some of whom have difficulty adjusting and availing themselves to resources,” says Sapolin.
He lost his sight, but his father made sure he lost nothing else.
"He would get on his bike and I would get on my bike — I remember being five years old and him pushing me down the hill and like every one of us falling off that bike and skinning my knee," says Sapolin.
"I was very fortunate to be just like any other kid, short of not seeing fence or the tree I ran into, or the pole, because I wasn't not going to run,” says Sapolin. “And so my friends didn't stop me. They would yell stop if I was running toward the fence, but they wouldn't say, Îyou can't play because you're going to run into the fence again.’"
But some adjustments were unavoidable, and necessary. Sapolin says he had to develop a heightened sense of hearing and spatial orientation.
"The bouncing of noise off walls or large objects and things like that where you might not notice the change in sound as you hear the vehicles go by behind you, I might hear the difference as they pass a large object parked on the side of the road, around here somewhere where you might not notice that,” says Sapolin.
Sapolin wrestled in high school, even getting written up in sports illustrated and he still occasionally hits the mat. He got his bachelors and masters from NYU. And he's married with two children.
There is a tendency for outsiders to put Sapolin on a pedestal for all of his accomplishments. He's not buying.
"My wife told me the other day as she walked away from me that an older man stopped her who travels the same course I do regularly and said, Îhe's my hero, he's my idol,’ and as I said, it's not a reality,” says Sapolin. “I'm no better human being than that man. Perhaps he's a much better human being than I."
Sapolin had surgery earlier this year to remove a cancerous tumor from his left shoulder followed by six weeks of radiation. A brief setback, but nothing that might deter from his positive message to New Yorkers with disabilities, and especially young New Yorkers.
Realistic but positive.
“Every time I talk to kids, fourth graders, Îwhat do you want to be when you grow up? Everybody wants to be shortstop for the New York Yankees. There's only one of those jobs,” says Sapolin.
"Dreams are important — we should always reach for the stars in our dreams, but along the way we have to realize that we can achieve goals that are acceptable and that we should be proud of that might not be the stars but are sort of the step up,” says Sapolin.
— Budd Mishkin