NYC disaster plan ignores people with disabilities: suit

New York:  Disability-rights advocates on Monday accused New York City of failing to account for the unique needs of its nearly 900,000 disabled residents during disasters like Hurricane Irene and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The proposed class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in Manhattan federal court, contended that the city is violating federal and state anti-discrimination laws by failing to make emergency plans, shelters, announcements and transportation fully accessible to people with physical disabilities.

The suit was brought by the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, and Tania Morales, a Brooklyn resident who uses a wheelchair. Morales was one of more than 250,000 New Yorkers asked to evacuate from low-lying areas during Hurricane Irene.

Morales said she arrived at a designated emergency shelter to find the gates leading to the wheelchair ramp were locked. Volunteers at the shelter tried to track down the keys, but after 10 minutes Morales returned home, saying she was afraid to wait any longer on the sidewalk and had no way to get to another shelter.

“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,” Julia Pinover, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order forcing the city to revamp its emergency preparation plan to account for disabled individuals’ needs, including accessible transportation, shelter, communication, notification and assistance during disaster recovery.

During the hurricane evacuations, roughly 75 percent of designated emergency shelters were not fully accessible to wheelchair users, and evacuation announcements and directions were not provided in a format usable by individuals with vision or hearing impairments, the complaint said.

A spokeswoman for the New York City Law Department rebuffed the plaintiffs’ allegations.

“Once the evacuation order was issued, the City aggressively communicated the locations of the evacuation centers and also specifically targeted service providers who work with people with disabilities,” said Kate O’Brien Ahlers.

Everyone who called the city seeking assistance in getting to a shelter was helped, she added, and the city deployed a special fleet of vehicles to assist people with disabilities.

The case is Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled et al v. Mayor Michael Bloomberg et al, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, no. 11-6690.

For the plaintiffs: Sid Wolinsky, Mary-Lee Smith and Julia Pinover of Disability Rights Advocates.

Source: http://newsandinsight.thomsonreuters.com