Thinking back to 2005, Angel Ponce remembers sitting in his wheelchair at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on West Gray Street waiting for a Metro Lift bus. He was using the service because he didn’t have transportation at that time.
“I remember sitting at the facility waiting for my bus to come, looking at the front desk and seeing the back offices in the facility and thinking, ‘I wonder what folks do back there?’” he mused. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I would like to one day be able to serve my community in that capacity.’”
Fast forward to now: Ponce not only has a satellite office in the Multi-Service Center, as director of the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, he has a staff that’s dedicated to serving people with disabilities throughout the metro area.
Years removed from a tragic car accident that killed his then-girlfriend and resulted in a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down, Ponce’s life has taken a drastic turn. He changed from a life of crime and tragedy to serving the City of Houston, first as a member of the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office — now the Mayor’s Office of Gang Prevention and Intervention under the Department of Neighborhoods — and now with MOPD.
“It’s really fascinating to me to think about what I was thinking about at that point and speaking it to existence with what is happening with my life now,” Ponce said.
Ponce succeeded Gabe Cazares as the new MOPD director in July 2022. The office serves as the main advocate for the rights of Houston residents with disabilities. It also serves as a liaison between the mayor, city council, city departments, and public and private entities on matters regarding people with disabilities.
He wasted no time making his mark in the office. When he first arrived, Ponce said he noticed the office did not have enough staff members to serve the city’s disability population.
More than 200,000 Houston residents identified as having disabilities, Ponce said. Including the suburbs and other outer lying communities, the Greater Houston area has about 500,000 people with disabilities, he said.
As MOPD director, one of his first initiatives was to hire more staff and caseworkers.
“We did that so we could connect with our community better and faster,” Ponce said. “I have grown the caseworker program from one to three, so now our numbers show we are able to serve five times as many people as we did prior. That’s one of my biggest accomplishments and one that I’m very proud of.”
Another high priority was to ensure the city became more accessible to its disability constituency and workforce. Ponce said the office is working with a consultant to help bring it up to American with Disabilities Act standards.
“This means bringing facilities, programs and services to their standards. It will be a 12-month process and should be going before the council within the next few weeks,” he said. “In 12 months, we should have a guidebook that will help all the departments look at what they need to do to make sure they are meeting those standards.”
Ponce also worked to expand the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, one of the only city-owned facilities in the country that is not only accessible to, but built for people with disabilities, Ponce said.
“That means the facility offers programs for the disability community here in Houston,” he said. “This includes adaptive sports and recreation, and a space for local organizations that served the disability community to come to provide their services to the community.”
Ponce said the facility, despite its assets, is aging and needs upgrades, including building a multi-level parking garage, adding more basketball courts for adaptive recreation and sports programs, and more activity rooms for groups to provide workshops and other activities, among other things.
“I also want it to be able to offer a space or office that allows this facility to become a one-stop shop where local agencies can serve the local disability community,” Ponce said. “And not just for the city, it will serve as an example to other cities should be doing as well.”
Ambitions like these will take time, he acknowledges. The MOPD hopes to join or find a public-private partnership to help those plans come to fruition. “We want to see what organization is out there who wants to join us in this effort,” he said.
Efforts like this harken back to his desire to serve the community in a more positive way than where he started.
There have been articles about his journey — his growing up in the Gulfton community in Southwest Houston, and the things he got involved with that impacted his life in a negative way, he said. Because of those decisions, he also found his way to serve his community.
“I found that as a young person, being approached by City of Houston staff and being provided a pathway or guide on how to not just become a productive member of society, but to be involved in city decision making, helped me see that there is so much more that we can be doing to serve our local community, especially our vulnerable communities,” Ponce said.
Although he started his career with the city working on youth gang prevention and intervention, Ponce said he began to see ways that he could help the underserved disability community that he is a part of.
“My passion then grew into how I can work with our mayor and elected officials, etc., to ensure that we’re not overlooking the disability community,” he said. “From my understanding, at least 10% of people in the Houston metropolitan area have disabilities.”
As a person with a disability, Ponce saw firsthand where the barriers are. One of those key barriers was an inaccessible infrastructure. This encouraged him to collaborate with Houston Public Works and the Planning and Development Department to pay attention to new construction and ensure that permits coming into the city are ADA compliant.
Partnership and communication are very important, Ponce said.
“It’s not just letting people fly under the radar and seeing the consequences for doing it later,” he said. “Our purpose at MOPD is to make sure that we are at the table when decisions are being made regarding infrastructure.”
“We are working with these departments to identify those areas where people are calling us about lack of accessing intersections and using available funds and the sidewalk program team to prioritize those intersections to make them accessible to our community,” Ponce said.
While progress has been made in terms of disability awareness, discrimination in the workforce is still an issue to deal with, Ponce said.
“Before I was even in this office, employment and employment opportunities for people with disabilities and discrimination has always been an issue. I think we are doing better at communicating the importance of hiring people with people with disabilities, but also making those spaces in the workplace accessible.”
Ponce said the office has provided presentations to local businesses on how to interact with people with disabilities, as well as talking up the benefits of hiring disabled workers.
Much of the discrimination is rooted in a lack of understanding of the issues and facts. Organizations may be reluctant to hire people with disabilities fearing that the cost of making their facilities accessible will be exorbitant, “when in fact it doesn’t cost more than a few thousand dollars to make accommodations,” he said.
Ponce added that hiring people with disabilities not only benefits the disabled workforce, but it can also help a company’s entire workforce and tie directly into the overall strategy of letting residents know that Houston cares about its disabled population.
“The disability community matters in Houston," Ponce said. “Access and access needs are important. That’s a big message that we try to send across. We provide resources and information about tax credits that employers and companies can qualify for that will encourage them to improve their facilities and hire more people that are disabled.
“It’s always a battle, but it’s a fight we’re not running away from,” he said.