Matthew P. Sapolin, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, died of cancer on Tuesday 11/29/11 at the age of 41. Commissioner Sapolin was an inspiration for all people with disabilities. He refused to accept that his blindness caused him any limitations. In fact, he accomplished in his too- short lifetime more than many people I know, including being a drummer in the band he formed, serving as co-captain of the wrestling team at NYU, playing chess and becoming a marathon runner. He had a great sense of humor and was a big sports fan; he particularly loved baseball.
After losing his sight at a very young age, he attended regular classes in the Islip, NY school system, through the advocacy of his mother, so that he had the opportunity to interact with students without disabilities. I think that such an educational experience gave him the strength to realize that he had no limitations to achieve success in whatever he wanted to pursue.
I believe Matthew was the best advocate we have had in New York City for people with disabilities. He was a great negotiator, and was able to achieve significant victories for people with disabilities. Among his achievements were working to make the city’s building code more accommodating, initiating a rent freeze for some people with disabilities in New York city (Disability Rent Increase Exemption - DRIE) and initiating Disability Mentoring Day in New York City, which was held this year on October 19.
Matthew’s spirit was felt at his funeral, which had an overwhelming turnout of family, friends and colleagues on Friday, December 2 at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Mayor Bloomberg gave a most heartfelt eulogy; his words showed his admiration for Commissioner Sapolin when he said “nothing could stop Matthew” (view the original article here).
Personally, the Commissioner was an inspiration to me and the organization that I helped co-found, LD Resources Foundation. In 2009, he was my professor at CUNY’s graduate program in Disabilities Studies. He asked me if I had been able to read the books he had assigned for the class. I answered I had not read them, as they were not available in readable format with assistive technology. Matthew dismissed all the books that were not accessible and taught our class based on his experiences in life. It was the most amazing class I have ever taken.
Matthew became a mentor to me in my non-profit work, and an inspiration to many people in New York City. He taught me that disabilities are not a barrier for achieving success. I learned from Matthew how to negotiate successfully for resources for people with learning disabilities. As Disabilities Commissioner, Matthew was easily reachable at his office, and always had time to discuss an issue or question that was important to me. He was a supporter of LD Resources Foundation. His concern about helping people with learning disabilities helped me learn how to advocate with colleges and libraries to provide adaptive technology for people with LD.
Matthew, your spirit will be with us forever…