(CN) - New York City's failure to prepare for the needs of its disabled citizens during emergencies violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal judge found.
After Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Center for Independence of the Disabled and its Brooklyn chapter joined two individuals in a lawsuit against the city and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The lawsuit accused the city of failing to plan for the nearly 900,000 disabled persons within New York City who are vulnerable during emergencies and disasters.
As Hurricane Irene 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," the complaint stated.
Only 26 percent of the shelters open were accessible to people with disabilities, the class claimed, forcing people like named plaintiff Tania Morales back home for the duration of the storm after the ramp gate at a shelter she went to was locked.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman certified the class action found Thursday that people with disabilities were unable to leave their high-rise homes or locate accessible transportation during and after the storm.
"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," Furman's 119-page decision states.
Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates and attorney for the class, called the ruling a landmark victory for the disabled residents of New York City.
"For the first time, they will be provided with an equal chance of survival during disasters," Wolinsky said in a statement. "No person should be left behind to suffer or die during emergencies because of the incompetence of the city's bureaucracy."
The city's plans for evacuations were flawed in their assumptions that people won't need assistance to leave a building and will be able to use public transportation, according to the ruling.
"People with disabilities may require assistance evacuating their buildings and accessible public transportation in order to reach an evacuation center," Furman wrote.
The city also had no plan for evacuating people with disabilities from multistory buildings, although "many people with disabilities cannot evacuate multi-story buildings on their own, particularly if a power outage has rendered elevators inoperable," the ruling states.
Paratransit, which requires a 24-hour advance reservation, began to shut down only 30 minutes after Bloomberg issued an evacuation order during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Also, transportation like MTA buses, which have two wheelchair-accessible seats, "may be too crowded for people in wheelchairs to board," the court found.
While New York City's planning and response lacked for people with disabilities, Furman nevertheless said that "the valor and sacrifice of those who have come to the aid of New Yorkers in times of emergency, from first responders to volunteers, have been nothing short of extraordinary."
He also commended the city for the "array and detail of its plans for every imaginable kind of emergency."
Furman did not order the city to take any actions, instead finding "there is no question that crafting an appropriate remedy would be better accomplished by those with expertise in such matters and through negotiation, whether court-supervised or otherwise, than by court order."
The parties must submit a joint status letter on these matters by Nov. 26, and are due for a conference with the court on Dec. 3.
Mayor Elect Bill de Blasio takes the reins from Bloomberg on New Year's Day.
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