In what many New Yorkers consider to be a landmark victory, the United Spinal Association and Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY) received U.S. District Court approval to move forward with their settlement agreement with the City of New York to significantly improve sidewalk accessibility for wheelchair users and members of the disability community.
The agreement—approved by the Honorable Judge George B. Daniels of the Southern District of New York—will require the City to complete pedestrian ramp installations and upgrades at all 162,000 street corners in the five boroughs. It is anticipated that those corners will be fully accessible for people with disabilities within 15 years. The agreement will also require citywide surveys of ramps, ongoing and indefinite maintenance, as well as the creation of a new Pedestrian Ramp Unit at the NYC Department of Transportation.
“It provides a comprehensive plan for installation, maintenance, and oversight on a reasonable schedule,” Judge Daniels said. “It is a major step toward full accessibility and mobility for all residents, and visitors to the City.”
Pushing for accessibility
In 1994, United Spinal sued New York City for failing to install curb ramps. A 2002 settlement required the City to move forward with the installation of citywide ramps and established a Working Group to share information and resolve conflicts.
United Spinal later raised concerns through the group about upgrading ramps that were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the completion of ramp installations, and needed improvements to the ramp complaint response system.
CIDNY filed another lawsuit in 2014, saying that the City had failed to install and maintain ramps in Community Boards 1, 2 and 3 in Manhattan. Both the CIDNY and United Spinal lawsuits were heard by Judge Daniels. Negotiations and mediation over two and a half years among the City, United Spinal, and CIDNY led to the settlement agreement, which the judge approved last month.
A positive response
The Judge’s ruling was met with open arms by community members, disability rights advocates and non-profit organization leaders, who say that they believe the settlement will provide fairness and mobility for people with physical and visual disabilities who must navigate obstacles while traveling around the five boroughs.
“If the city is going to make every curb accessible, I’m all for it,” said Philip Bennett, the corresponding secretary for Disabled in Action (DIA) of Metropolitan New York, a non-profit and civil rights organization committed to ending discrimination against people with disabilities.
“This is the most important thing, literally, in terms of accessibility for people with physical and sensory disabilities,” Bennett said. “It’s more important than elevators, because people with disabilities can go down any street with freedom.”
DIA Treasurer and Civics League for Disability Rights member Phil Beder also lauded the ruling, describing it as a favorable decision that will provide much-needed accessibility for people with disabilities.
“We’ve been fighting for this for years—it had to happen,” Beder said. “For people with mobility impairments, it’s imperative. Getting around in the late 1980s, early 1990s, was a pain in the butt. This will makes life easy for everyone to get around.”
Independence Care System member and Civics League for Disability Rights leader Sharifa Abu-Hamda echoed those sentiments, and emphasized that the decision will also increase safety for people with disabilities who travel regularly in the city. “The way some streets are curved, you have to make sure cars don’t come when crossing the street,” she said. “This will allow for more accessibility to maneuver, and keep us safe in our city.”
Others expressed less optimistic views with the ruling, noting that they felt the length of time projected for the implementation of pedestrian ramp installations and upgrades is too long. Other concerns raised include addressing current ramps and curb cuts that are in disrepair.
“It seems to me that it’ll take a long time for something to get done,” said ICS member and DIA board member Robert Acevedo. “I go to different rallies, and there’s so much construction being done in the city, the curb cuts are in worse shape than ever. They’re going to train people to make the curb cuts up to date, but it’s going to take a long time.”
Bennett also said that the City should replace and fix curb cuts that are in poor condition in the interim to ensure that people with disabilities can safely travel.
“I was pushing a gentleman in a wheelchair, and it rained the day before and there was a big pothole,” he explained. “We ended up hitting this, and we both ended up on our faces. Fortunately, it was no great damage. But it’s horrible. They have to maintain the curb cuts that are already there.”
Others, however, noted that while the implementation process may be lengthy and the City has to make greater strides with current repairs, the recent ruling will go the distance in ensuring that widespread ramp installations and upgrades are in place for the future, making a difference in the lives of New Yorkers with disabilities.
“Corners in the city are already accessible, but they’re not ADA compliant and they’re broken up,” Beder said. “Does it need to be better? Absolutely. For me, the movement in the right direction is great. Slow progress is better than mood swings. Just look at the government in Washington. But we have to work together. The world has to become accessible.”
Read the full settlement agreement here.