MANHATTAN — Matthew Sapolin, commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, died Tuesday after a life-long battle with cancer. He was 41.
"Matt was the perfect embodiment of so many essential New York traits — passionate about justice and tireless in his pursuit of equal access and opportunity for all New Yorkers," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.
Sapolin had served nine years as Commissioner of the office and was the first to hold the position after four years as its executive director.
Sapolin began his long battle with cancer at age 5, when he lost his sight to bilateral retinoblastoma, a cancer affecting the optic nerve, the mayor said.
Nonetheless, he went on to earn his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in public administration from New York University, where he served as co-captain of the varsity wrestling team — just one of the sports in which he excelled — the mayor said.
Sapolin played baseball, with the help of audio sensors placed in the bases and balls, and helped create the city's "first Beep Baseball tournament." He also played drums, guitar and bass, and was "a fantastic chess player, in part because of his computer-like memory," Bloomberg said.
During his tenure, Sapolin advocated on behalf of people with disabilities, chairing a Building Code Accessibility Committee that forced stronger Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and helping outfit 311 with accessible technology.
He succeeded in pushing numerous initiatives, including increasing the number of wheelchair accessible taxis and increasing the use of audible pedestrian crossings, which help those with visual impairments cross the street. He also made sure the 9/11 Memorial was fully-accessible, the mayor said.
In an interview with NY1 in 2006, Sapolin said that he was taught from a young age to enjoy life and not to let his disability get in the way.
“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," he said.
He described his position as a "dream job" and said it allowed him not only to help people with every day problems, but to change perceptions about the disabled as well.
"Dreams are important — we should always reach for the stars in our dreams," he said, "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."
Sapolin died Tuesday afternoon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, according to a spokesman for the mayor. All flags in city buildings have been lowered in respect.
"Matt is already deeply missed at City Hall, where he and his guide dog Downey were constant fixtures," Bloomberg said. “Along with those of countless other New Yorkers, my thoughts and prayers are with Candra and their children Trevor and Toscany tonight."