New York City has an estimated 889,219 individuals with disabilities, making up 11% of the population, and as we saw during Hurricane Sandy, they're in dire straits during a natural disaster. Many disabled New Yorkers were dangerously stranded during and after the superstorm, trapped in their apartments with no electricity, no running water, no heat, or working elevators to let them in or out. Now a federal judge has confirmed the obvious: NYC is woefully unprepared to assist disabled residents during emergencies, and that's in violation of federal law.
"The city’s plans are inadequate to ensure that people with disabilities are able to evacuate before or during an emergency; they fail to provide sufficiently accessible shelters; and they do not sufficiently inform people with disabilities of the availability and location of accessible emergency services," judge Jesse M. Furman wrote in the 119-page decision, which also acknowledged the "herculean task," faced by the city and praised officials for doing an "outstanding job" in many ways.
Michael Cardoza, the city's corporation counsel, told the Times, "While we are disappointed with the court’s conclusions, we are gratified it recognized that the city’s extensive planning is impressive. Planning for the needs of people with disabilities has always been and remains a priority for the city. We are continuing to review this decision and assess our next steps."
Judge Furman's decision found the city's evacuation plans insufficient for disabled residents, with inadequate means for helping them physically leave their homes and a misguided reliance on public transportation, which is "inaccessible to people with disabilities under the best of circumstances." We learned this first-hand by spending a day trying to commute with Disabled-In-Action activist Edith Prentiss, who uses a wheelchair.
The lawsuit, which eventually became a class-action suit, was filed after Tropical Storm Irene on behalf of a blind man and a woman who uses a wheelchair. Although Irene caused minimal damage in NYC, there were mandatory evacuations, and the city's inadequate response to disabled residents was subsequently underscored during Hurricane Sandy.
The ruling does not order any specific changes... yet. Furman's decision instructs the city to come up with remedies with the plaintiffs and with representatives of the Justice Department. Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, said he hoped the next administration would be more cooperative, telling the Times, "I have to say that the Bloomberg administration was unfortunately resistant to working cooperatively on the issue."