The first Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities has died.
Matthew Sapolin, 41, passed away on November 29th. The cause of death was cancer, which he had battled since childhood.
Sapolin was born in Islip, New York. He became blind at age five from bilateral retinoblastoma, a cancer affecting the optic nerve.
He held a BA in Philosophy from New York University (NYU), where he was co-captain of the wrestling team. Sapolin earned the University Athletic Association Athlete of the Week honor three times and received the President's Service Award for Volunteerism and Community Service upon graduating. He also held an MA in Public Health Administration from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service.
Sapolin has been the co-director of the Queens Independent Living Center and coordinator of the Client Assistance Program for the Center for Independence of the Disabled of New York. He was an adjunct professor at the City University of New York.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Sapolin to be the executive director of the Office for People with Disabilities in October 2002 and promoted him to Commissioner in 2006. Bloomberg delivered the eulogy at Sapolin’s funeral.
“Matt was truly fearless. This was a guy who skied, who played softball, who could school you in a game of chess, who ran the New York City marathon – not once, but twice. How he managed it all, I don’t know!” Bloomberg said.
“He even handled the cancer that took decades and decades to finally defeat him – and it’s got to be said that Matt was at work right up until the end. Many knew how much pain Matt was in during those final months – but he was still making calls, still solving problems, still helping people even as he was heading into his last surgery,” Bloomberg said.
Sapolin advocated for transportation, employment and housing equality for people with disabilities. He was part of the fight to increase accessible taxis, which has gained traction in recent months.
He worked to increase enforcement of building codes to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also fought to make the 9/11 Memorial and 311 technology accessible and to increase audible pedestrian crossings.
Sapolin was also an avid player of music, sports and the game of chess. He played baseball using equipment with audio sensors and helped create the first Beep Baseball tournament in 2010 with the Parks Department. He also played drums, guitar and bass.
Sapolin was a reliable source to Able News, returning calls promptly despite his busy schedule as recently as October. A few months ago he told Able News that job seekers with disabilities should target all professions, including but not limited to disability services. In his final call, he offered fond memories and condolences following the death of Michael Imperiale.
Sapolin leaves behind his wife Candra and children Trevor and Toscany, and his mother Miriam. All flags in city buildings were lowered in respect. Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to The New York Community Trust, 909 Third Avenue, New York NY 10022.
This article was published in the January 2012 issue of Able News.