Opening doors in parks
by Austin Fenner
New York Daily News Staff Writer
Victor Calise takes a direct approach to tackling life's hurdles;
"Just because you are in a wheelchair, it doesn't mean your life stops..."
Victor Calise, 34, a paraplegic, works for the Parks Department as its newly minted accessibility coordinator. His job is to make the 29,000 acres of New York City parkland accessible to physically-challenged New Yorkers.
"The focus of the Parks Department is to look at parks and say, 'This is not accessible,' and fix it," he said.
Calise, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Susan, and their two young children, mounts his hand cycle three times a week to race around Central Park's 6-mile loop in a breathtaking 26 minutes.
"Just because you are in a wheelchair, it doesn't mean your life stops," said the strong, wiry man.
One of Calise's accomplishments was to qualify as a sled hockey Paralympics competitor in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.
He takes that same drive and determination to work for other physically-challenged people to improve their lives.
"When a physically-challenged person goes to the park, they say, "How can I get into this park and participate?'" he said.
Calise and his team work to have ramps installed or signage improved in high-traffic areas to direct the physically-challenged to the nearest wheelchair-accessible entrances and exits. His appointment to accessibility coordinator is part of a larger accessibility initiative at the Parks Department.
This month, the agency launched an accessibility homepage on its Web site - www.nyc.gov/parks - filled with information about special programming and accessible parks. Click on the wheelchair icon in the far right corner.
Even blind people can access the information on the Web page by using a high-tech screen reader that translates the text into sound so that the user can hear the information.
The programming includes information about such activities as wheelchair football, ballroom dancing, quadriplegic rugby and aquatic therapy.
"Victor Calise has long advised the Parks Department as an athlete and a strong advocate for the disabled community," said city Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "He will help lead our efforts to make parks, facilities, programs, and information accessible - our Web site's new accessibility homepage is just the latest example."
Calise's world was turned upside down in 1994 when he fell off his bicycle while cycling in Queens' Forest Park and smashed into a tree.
"I just remember descending down the hill, and I woke up paralyzed," said Calise, who wasn't wearing a helmet at the time of the mishap. "People told me I hit a tree. I broke my back on compression."
He thought his life was over.
"At first, you have this world, and then it's gone, in a sense," Calise recalled. "You can't do things. You can't walk. You can't feel the sand between your toes. It is quite devastating."
But with the support of his family and the help of his therapist, Calise was able to beat back depression.
"After I was injured, I was lucky enough to find sports, and that helped change my life in such a positive way," he said. "When you know there are programs out there for you, it makes you feel good about yourself, and it builds your self-esteem."
by Austin Fenner; From New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com
Permission to post requested by Paralinks; a not-for-profit grassroots community electronic magazine dedicated to Spinal Cord Injury information & Directory.