A federal court has ordered New York City to improve accessibility at its voting stations before the upcoming election, finding that people with disabilities are being denied the opportunity to exercise their constitutionally protected voting right due to architectural and other barriers at polling locations throughout the five boroughs.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York highlighted data collected from the Center for Independence of the Disabled, which found “ski-slope”-like ramps, poor signage, prohibatively heavy or nonautomatic doors and other impediments at polling locations to people with ambulatory or visual disabilities. The court found that the city’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations at these sites violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
“New York’s treatment of people with disabilities has often been shameful,” said attorney Stuart Seaborn of Disability Rights Advocates, which represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in a news release. “It is unacceptable that New York’s subways, office buildings, taxi fleet, and businesses exclude so many people with disabilities.
“As the federal court has now recognized, it is unacceptable to have such massive voting barriers to people who use wheelchairs, scooters, and other mobility aids and people with vision impairments.”
The United Spinal Association and Disabled in Action sued the the city Board of Elections in July 2010. The BOE hires 25 full-time surveyors to monitor the sites for ADA violations. However, the court found that the BOE had failed to appoint a designatee to monitor compliance with ADA regulations or created an Accessibility Transition Plan to monitor its structural improvements, as is required under the ADA for all public entities with 50 or more employees.
The city argued that it provides voters the opportunity to be transferred to more accessible locations and had developed a complaint process for people who encounter barriers. The court, however, ruled that these steps still denied people with disabilities “meaningful access” to the voting locations and that the BOE had often failed to respond to complaints.
It also rejected the city’s arguments that the option of mailing in absentee ballots was an appropriate substitute and that the city was not responsible for enforcing ADA accessibility at some of the locations since they had been leased to private companies.
A recently released study, published in Social Science Quarterly, estimated that as many as 3.2 million Americans with disabilities are “sidelined” on Election Day do to various impediments, including inaccessible locations, according to a USA Today article. As a result, the voter turnout is on average 11 percent lower for people with disabilities then the general population.