“When we last saw Joe, he was stuck in a three hour long traffic jam on I-95 - trying to get to an audition – and wondering if his renewed journey to the stage and screen was ending before it began…”
Just two months into my attempt to return to the entertainment field, transportation issues were threatening to derail my quest. The exorbitant cost of driving - gas and parking were costing upwards of $75-100 a trip, more if a shoot took longer than 12 hours as they often do – coupled with the unpredictability of I-95 traffic into NYC was proving that commuting by car was entirely impractical. While I knew that Metro-North train service from New Haven to Grand Central Station was accessible, I had no idea how I would get around the city once I got there. As all film/TV shoots, auditions, rehearsals and theater productions mandate that everyone be at an exact location at a specific time, I knew that I would have to find a very reliable point-to-point mode of travel once I got into town. That would eliminate bus service on most days, as 3-6 transfers might be needed depending on location; the subway would be even more challenging as only about half of the stops have elevators to get back up to the street.
Thankfully, instead of giving up I turned to Google, which brought me to a new service launched the previous month (9/12) named Accessible Dispatch (AD). With the progression of improved technology in GPS, computer interaction and programming, along with the vision of Bill and Isabelle Scalzi of Metro Taxi in West Haven, CT, AD was born and launched. No small task either, because in addition to the ‘mechanics’ of getting all systems and four different technology companies to work together, the Scalzis also had to get the program approved at many various levels of the NYC Taxi & Livery Commission (T&LC) – a taunting and time-consuming experience in itself. One major factor that contributed to Metro Taxi’s success in ‘selling’ the idea to the T&LC was its reputation and innovative success with serving people with disabilities in CT. The largest taxi fleet in Connecticut, Metro Taxi incorporated the state’s first ADA-compliant taxicabs into regular service, and its drivers are provided with specialized training in order to meet the company’s requisite customer service standards. Remarkably, Bill and Isabelle didn’t stop there! In the years since, more and more accessible taxis have been added to their fleet – so many that every other orange and white taxi I see operating in New Haven county is fully equipped for wheelchair and disabled transport. Not because they had to – but because they want to.
When asked where their staunch commitment to accessibility started, Bill Scalzi, CEO of Metro said to me, “Simple enough, Joe. I had a neighbor who used a wheelchair – I would see him working and playing in his yard, going in and out of his ramp-equipped house and it struck me – while he is independent in his own ‘space,’ how can he easily get out and about into the world itself? That helped spark our decision to commit our resources and energies to help make New Haven and beyond more accessible to all.”
Getting Accessible Dispatch operational was no small task either, but the Scalzis persevered. In addition to proving its capabilities to the T&LC, computer networks and GPS systems had to be developed, all tied into Metro’s CT dispatch center. Accessible taxis needed to hit the streets in NYC, their drivers trained in the operation of the ramp system - and more importantly - how to provide appropriate service to a customer base they hadn’t served previously. As critical was getting the message out that ‘easy to book’ accessible taxis were available for New Yorkers and NYC visitors. For delivering the message, Bill and Isabelle turned to John Boit and his team at Melwood Global to continuously blanket all of the social media platforms and press outlets with the message that Accessible Dispatch is here – for you. They provide updated news about the system and other disability related issues on a daily basis. As a result, AD went from providing less than ten trips a day it’s first few months to a daily average of 150-200 accessible rides in 2015, and the number continues to rise. In March, they averaged 228 rides per day - the word is spreading!
Accessible Dispatch’s system is easy to, well, access! A taxi can be booked either through a phone call, text, online via their website, their Facebook page – or my favorite, the Wheels on Wheels app for smart phones. Trips can either be arranged for ‘right now’ or up to 24 hours in advance.
I must admit I had some trepidation the first time I used AD. I had taken a Metro-North train into Grand Central Station (GCS). The first positive surprise was a ticket from New Haven to NYC, at what they call the Medicare/Disabled rate was only $10.25. (Now $10.75) Already a huge cost savings over driving and instead of a stressful drive, an hour and a half to two hours of sitting back, relaxing and getting ready for the next gig or audition. As I needed to be at an audition within the hour, as soon as I arrived at GCS I whipped out my phone, opened the WoW app and tapped the ‘Book’ button. In less than a second, GPS had found my location and the app stated that the ride had been booked. About 10 minutes later, my phone dinged, the app notifying me that a taxi had been dispatched and was .26 miles away. As the minutes ticked away, I paced back and forth on the sidewalk, nervous that I would be late…but have no fear, the taxi is here! A bright yellow Toyota minivan pulled up on East 42nd Street, the driver rolled down the passenger window and asked “Are you Joe?” When I emphatically stated ‘Yes!” he disembarked, opened up the rear door and unfolded a ramp, put my bag in the car, assisted me up the incline into the rear passenger compartment and secured my chair with simple tie-downs. Within 2-3 minutes we were on the road towards 21st Street, and in spite of the usual NYC traffic arrived less than ten minutes later. The fare? $5.50. Arriving a half hour before my audition time? Priceless! Time enough to relax my pre-audition nerves, get a drink at the ever-present Starbucks and use their facilities to freshen up prior to going in.
And I nailed my very first TV commercial! It was for a law firm that was looking for a featured actor to promote their civil division. Funny thing was, when I rolled into the studio room they thought I was faking my disability in order to get the job! I assured them I was indeed a ‘true’ paraplegic, and pointed out how I usually can tell if a person appearing on film or TV is ‘real’ or not. If they’re not sitting on some sort of cushion while in the ‘chair, most likely it’s a non-disabled actor. After we shared a chuckle over that and their faux pas regarding my own situation, they offered me the job on the spot. Never had that happened during an audition; usually we have to wait days and sometimes weeks to learn if we got the part. In fact, if a person does not get the role, they are seldom notified. A frustrating part of the ‘biz’ but an accepted industry practice. When the call comes to say ‘You’re in!’ it’s such a good feeling, the rejections fade from memory. Sometimes… (Okay, never – but it just makes us stronger, right?)
Since that late October day in 2012, I have used Accessible Dispatch a few hundred times. While things don’t always go as smoothly as that first trip, especially during rush hour when no one can get a cab (hey, we want to be treated as equals, right?), Bill, Isabelle, their team of technology companies and dispatch center are continually updating and streamlining procedures in order to provide the best service possible. As one of their more prolific riders, I’ve been very fortunate to become friends with Bill, Isabelle and John Boit. And when I call or email to report a glitch in the AD system, Bill takes on the problem himself, and works towards a resolution, something not all CEOs will do.
I’ve been so impressed with Accessible Dispatch and the people who make it work, I welcomed the opportunity to shoot the video linked below with the AD team about how the system works for me – and can work for others. Because if AD wasn’t working in NYC, neither would I!
Up next – travel stories, Ralph Lauren, and live performances…Stay tuned!