Independence Care System (ICS) and Civics League for Disability Rights (CLDR) member Julia Yepez recently filed a lawsuit against a Brooklyn-based hospital for architectural disability discrimination. Julia’s lawsuit claimed that the hospital ignored explicit legal requirements to make its facility accessible for people with disabilities, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other federal, state, and New York City laws.
Julia, a longtime wheelchair user, said that she carefully weighed whether to file the lawsuit against the hospital, where she has received medical care, including primary care, since the 1960s. Ultimately, Julia decided to sue in order to ensure that she and other individuals with disabilities could receive full and equal access as patients.
“I cannot stand up and I cannot walk,” Julia said. “I’ve been going there a long time. I’ve missed many appointments because of the inaccessible nature of the building. I’ve complained about it, many have. But no one was listening.”
Hospital barriers for people with disabilities
Julia notes that prior to the lawsuit, numerous barriers existed that prevented or restricted access for her at the hospital. Among those barriers were inaccessible interior ramps, waiting areas, counters, examination rooms, bathrooms, a cafeteria, and an elevator to the clinic space.
In the late 1990s, the hospital designed and constructed an addition to create a new main entrance and made alterations to the lobby areas and ramps, all without complying with the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, federal Standards for Accessible Design, or the New York City Building Code.
This is a not-infrequent occurrence; an expensive renovation or new construction is often carried out without taking the needs of people with mobility disabilities into account. In one recent glaring example, a brand new public library in Queens that was effusively praised for its architecture has a book collection that is glaringly inaccessible to wheelchair users or other people who can’t climb stairs.
Becoming an advocate
Julia joined ICS in 2005, and it quickly became her second home.
“The accident that resulted in my disability was a punch in the face,” Julia recalled. “I must have been disabled four or five weeks when I got a phone call from ICS Outreach Specialist Julio Gonzalez.”
“I thought I was going to live in a hospital somewhere, but instead I became a part of this community,” Julia said. “I started painting. I became a person I didn’t know existed. ICS freed me from the idea that I was going to always feel inadequate being in a wheelchair. They gave me a second chance at life.”
From there, Julia learned about and became a member of the Civics League for Disability Rights, (CLDR), an independent, volunteer-led group of New Yorkers with disabilities who advocate for themselves and their community while sharing ideas, tools and information about how to effect change. Through her involvement, Julia continues to be inspired to advocate for the rights and equality of people with disabilities.
“Joining the league has given me more courage,” Julia said. “As a person with a disability, when you’re complaining, people have that smile that says ‘Isn’t she cute—she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ I was sick of the judgmental looks!”
Hospital makes accessibility upgrades
The lawsuit benefited not just Julia but the entire community.
“When I saw they installed a new elevator and ramps, I couldn’t believe it,” Julia said. “I’m still overwhelmed. It brings me joy. When you advocate, anything is possible.”
Glen Parker, Esq., one of the partners of Parker Hanski LLC, a disability rights law firm, who represented Julia, said he was pleased with the case.
“When I first heard about the hospital’s inaccessibility, I didn’t believe it,” Glen said. “Hospitals are there to protect patients and to provide a safe environment.”
He added, “The population you’re serving at a hospital is mobility impaired or temporarily mobility impaired. The structure is something that needed to change.”
Despite her struggle, Julia said she remains grateful for all she’s learned as an advocate. She strongly believes that the only way to achieve results is to be a voice in the community.
“It is a good hospital with good doctors and very good support staff,” Julia said. “But I wanted physical results. You have to have a voice and speak up. I hope people understand that when it comes to advocacy, there’s nothing to be fearful of.”