On June 28th, United Spinal Association announced a New York District Court decision that will permit David Heard, a power wheelchair user and member of United Spinal, to continue to pursue legal action against Statue Cruises, LLC. for allegedly discriminating against him on the basis of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law).
The decision was issued by New York Judge Andrew L. Carter, Jr. on June 26, who denied Statue Cruises, LLC. motion to dismiss Heard’s complaint.
Statue Cruises, LLC., whose parent company Hornblower, is contracted to run the city’s five-borough ferry service, claimed that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate its ferry boat service to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis island violated the law or discriminated against Heard.
“The court’s decision to deny dismissal of this case is a huge victory for our members and all people with disabilities who struggle to access New York City’s numerous historical landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty,” said James Weisman, United Spinal’s president and CEO. New Mobility is United Spinal’s membership magazine.
“Such a powerful symbol of our country’s independence should be accessible to everyone,” said Weisman.
In December 2015, Heard, who lives in Jackson Heights, New York and was spinal cord injured in a 1993 diving accident, purchased a round trip ferry-ticket from Battery Park in Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty. Over the course of the day Heard rode on three different Statue Cruises ferries using his 350-lb motorized wheelchair.
In his initial complaint Heard alleged that due to his disability and use of a wheelchair, when he first attempted to board the gangplank was not wide enough and too steep to accommodate his wheelchair. He was then singled out by Statues Cruises employees for boarding while other ferry passengers watched; causing him embarrassment and humiliation. Statue Cruises employees then allegedly placed additional gang plates to allow Heard to board. Heard contended the plates were unstable to support his wheelchair putting him in a dangerous situation. Heard also noted that there was also no place to secure his wheelchair as the ferry sailed through the choppy waters of New York Harbor.
Heard stated that he faced the same obstacles while attempting to disembark the ferry, claiming that Statue Cruises employees who attempted to help him, accidentally turned off the power to his wheelchair on two occasions.
Heard also claimed the ferry rest rooms were inaccessible and that he ultimately felt deterred from subsequently visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as a result of the ferry’s alleged inaccessibility.
Last year, in response to Heard’s complaint and those of other members, United Spinal Association submitted a letter to the National Park Service, which gave Statue Cruises a 10-year contract to operate ferry services in 2008, calling the accommodations “dangerous and inaccessible,” noting the “unlawful” slope of gangplanks, unstable platform pieces and inaccessible rest rooms.
In an attempt to remedy Heard’s complaints, Statues Cruises designed and implemented a new “plate wedge” with handrails, and agreed to provide its employees with further ADA training.
According to United Spinal and Heard, although Statue Cruises has identified certain remedial measures taken, it does not assert that these measures render it ADA compliant or that the alleged violations — if actually-remedied — will not reoccur.
United Spinal also notes that Statues Cruises entirely failed to address one of the Plaintiff’s allegations — the lack of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms — to assert in conclusory fashion that the bathrooms were wheelchair-accessible already.
“We simply want to ensure wheelchair users along with their families can access and enjoy all the City has to offer. One day this will be a reality, thanks in part to members like David who are willing to bring attention to the issue,” said Weisman.