Tania Morales, a Brooklyn resident who uses a wheelchair, attempted to enter the emergency shelter nearest to her home prior to the first night of Hurricane Irene.
The gates leading to the wheelchair ramp were locked. After 10 minutes of waiting for the shelter’s volunteers to assist her, the wind began picking up. Being that just 1.8 percent of New York’s yellow taxicabs are wheel-chair accessible, Morales was forced to return to her home, to wait out the storm.
On September 26, Disability Rights Advocates, the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Morales and other people in similar predicaments. The lawsuit charges that New York City’s emergency preparedness plan violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because it fails to accommodate, and therefore discriminates against, people with disabilities.
“It’s an absolute disgrace that a decade after the September 11th terrorist attack, there is still an absence of planning for our most vulnerable citizens,” said Disability Rights Advocates attorney Julia Pinover said in a CIDNY news release. ” These past and recent events are symptoms of the city’s underlying problem: the lack of an emergency plan for people with disabilities.”
Though New York City has created an extensive array of emergency shelters throughout the five boroughs, just 26 percent of the shelters are “somewhat or completely accessible” to people with disabilities, according to the lawsuit. The problems at many of these shelters range from architectural accessibility issues, such as a lack of wheelchair ramps, to communication issues, such as a lack of sign language interpreters.
The lawsuit contends that these problems have been known for years, and New York City has failed to ever provide a draft plan to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are met, or hired any professionals to assess whether the shelters are disability accessible.
“As the hurricane approached, New Yorkers with disabilities had no idea how they could be evacuated, what shelters, if any, were accessible, how they would obtain life-sustaining medications, or how they could be transported when buses and subways stopped running,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit could effect hundreds of thousands of individuals. New York is estimated to have about 535,000 people citywide with mobility disability, about 210,000 with vision disabilities and about 180,000 with hearing disabilities.