Testimony ended March 19 in a federal class action lawsuit in New York that alleges New York City endangered citizens with disabilities by not providing adequate emergency assistance during disasters. The suit, filed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, represents 900,000 New Yorkers whose lack of accessible shelters has been a central issue.
Susan Dooha, executive director of Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, has visited 700 city shelters and found 80 percent to be inaccessible. According to her, city expert witness Elizabeth Davis testified the ADA is aspirational [not legally binding] and the city doesn’t have to provide reasonable accommodations during emergencies, only something useable. Dooha disagrees, saying the ADA certainly applies. “The job of the court is to review the evidence and make a decision about whether the city has complied with the ADA,” she says.
The city has also been criticized for failing to provide adequate transportation and power to people using life-sustaining equipment, inadequate planning for high-rise building evacuations, and poor training of emergency personnel in dealing with people with disabilities. Dooha says there are many issues to address, but it’s essential to have the disability community involved in future emergency planning.
Dooha is pleased that Federal Judge Jesse M. Furman has recognized the inaccessibility of shelters but says the trial outcome will be a cliffhanger. She hopes the needs of people with disabilities will be taken seriously during future emergencies. “We’re not looking for money,” she says. “We’re trying to change the chances of survival for people with disabilities in a disaster.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by Disability Rights Advocates and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.