Letitia James Argues City Needs to Step Up Sidewalk Access for the Disabled

Letitia James filed a legal bief arguing that the city has failed to provide New Yorkers with disabilities access to city sidewalks.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 03: New York City Public Advocate Letitia James speaks after a grand jury decided not to indict New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Eric Garner's death, on December 3, 2014 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by Pantaleo in July. The altercation was captured in a widely viewed video. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Public Advocate Letitia James filed a legal brief today claiming that the city has failed to sustain pedestrian pathways and provide access to city sidewalks for New Yorkers with disabilities.

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In the brief, James contends that a previous settlement to deal with the bad conditions of “curb cuts”—a dip in a sidewalk and curb that allows pedestrians to step up onto the sidewalk—across the city has been overall unsuccessful. Her brief calls for a court-appointed special master to turn down the settlement between the city and the United Spinal Association, formerly Eastern Paralyzed Veterans of America.

James pointed out that the city had “lovely weather” this past weekend but she ended up receiving a number of complaints from constituents who “unfortunately could not access Fort Greene Park.”

“I just know that obviously, what we currently have now is just unacceptable—cracked streets, cracked sidewalks…missing ramps and lack of curb cuts,” she said in front of City Hall this morning. “It continues to represent a challenge to the disabled community.”

In 1994, the United Spinal Association sued the city for flouting the American with Disabilities Act over sidewalk and pedestrian pathway accessibility issues. James argued that despite a settlement reached in 2002, the city has not improved accessibility since then. And she accused the city of attempting to use a new settlement with United Spinal Association to evade legal responsibility and prevent a lawsuit. She said that disability rights advocates and Shepherd, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP are filing the lawsuit.

“Every disability group is opposed to this settlement and I am somewhat confident that going forward, there will probably be other disability groups who might file an additional lawsuit against the city of New York,” James said.

Raul Contreras, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said that the city plans to work with the special master and advocates for people with disabilities to maintain and expand transportation and mobility options.

“The city has dedicated significant resources to install and upgrade pedestrian ramps in recent years, including a focus on lower Manhattan as the post 9/11 construction winds down,” Contreras said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to working with the special master and representatives of the disability community to further strengthen this program.”

The Public Advocate said that a recent survey from the city’s Department of Transportation found that 79 percent of the curbs in the city either lack ramps, have flawed ramps or are non-compliant with ADA regulations. Another survey by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer indicated that more than 90 percent of 1,357 surveyed “curb cuts” along Broadway in Manhattan pose serious risks to people with mobility or vision disabilities.

A third survey from Kessler McGuinness, a national ADA architecture firm, found that nearly one-quarter of locations in Lower Manhattan do not have any pedestrian ramps.

James has had a mixture of victories and failures with the legal actions she has taken against the city ince entering her current office in 2014.

In October 2016, she won a lawsuit she joined in January 2015 seeking to make the city’s Department of Education School Leadership Team meetings open to the public—in April 2015, a Manhattan Supreme Court justice also ruled in favor of the petitioners of a lawsuit she joined four month.

And in July, she obtained immediate access to air-conditioned buses for two students with disabilities in a settlement with the DOE—though she is still actively pursuing her lawsuit, which she filed in August 2015, to seek relief for all children with disabilities who have had to sit in buses with dangerously high temperatures.

In July 2015, James and 10 foster children filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the Administration for Children’s Services and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

The state agreed, over the city’s objections, to a settlement arrangement that would have enabled it to put in place an independent monitor oversee the city’s foster care system. But that August, a federal judge sided with the de Blasio administration and the following month, the judge denied the motion for class certification in the lawsuit.

James noted that her brief filed today is not a lawsuit, but just commentary “on a settlement where just about every major disability group opposes.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from the mayor’s office. 

Letitia James Argues City Needs to Step Up Sidewalk Access for the Disabled