After 25 Years of Americans With Disabilities Act, Lawsuit Demands More Must Be Done to Make NYC Sidewalks Accessible

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The civil rights law is celebrated for protecting people with disabilities from discrimination and assuring access to public places, like businesses, jobs and transportation -- but in a city that thrives on pedestrian culture, some say that important work remains to make our streets and sidewalks more accessible.

Dustin Jones, 27, has not always been in a wheelchair. A medical accident in 2011 left him largely dependent on one.

"I thought my whole life was going to end," Jones said, thinking back to his first days in a wheelchair. "It took awhile for me to get out of that funk and start enjoying life again."

Although the Bronx native says he is enjoying life now, he finds navigating city streets anything but fun.

"It’s a daily struggle that a lot of people in wheelchairs deal with," Jones said.

A 2014 survey by the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York evaluated curb cuts, the places where sidewalks dip down to meet the street and allow a wheelchair to move safely from the sidewalk into the street.

The survey found that more than 75 percent of curbs in lower Manhattan were inaccessible. The problems ranged from improper slopes and missing detectable warnings for people with vision impairments to curbs that were missing cuts.

Jones called the city's sidewalk and curb cut situation "horrendous."

On any given day, Jones says he finds himself trying to propel his wheelchair up a steep curb ramp, trapped in a crosswalk when there is no curb cut, or stuck with a wheel lodged in a deep hole.

Lawyer Daniel Brown filed a class-action lawsuit against New York City and the New York City Department of Transportation last year. The lawsuit demands that sidewalks and curb cuts be installed, maintained and repaired in accordance with the ADA.

“The fact that we are filing a lawsuit about accessible sidewalks 25 years after the ADA was passed --it is distressing to me,” says Brown, a passionate advocate for disability rights.

The judge recently denied the city’s motion to dismiss, allowing the case to proceed. Although the Department of Transportation could not comment on the litigation, spokesman Scott Gastel said "these issues were the subject of a litigation dating back to the 1990s and settled in 2001.”

“The city has expended hundreds of millions of dollars to install pedestrian ramps throughout the city,” said Gastel. “Currently, 97 percent of the corners requiring pedestrian ramps have them, and the city is committed to continuing its efforts to see that the city is fully accessible to all people who live, work or visit the city.”

Even though the lawsuit is focused on curb and sidewalk issues in lower Manhattan, City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Democrat, says inaccessible curbs are found in his Upper East Side district too.

While walking his district, Kallos pointed out curb cuts that have fallen into disrepair.

“You see the concrete is falling apart, you have the metal sticking out for a trip and fall hazard,” he said. Kallos proposed legislation in June geared to improve the sidewalk conditions citywide. He said he hopes repairs happen quickly.

Brown, the lawyer who filed the class action suit, said there's a lot more to be done but significant improvements have been made. Of the progress he has seen in 25 years, Brown said, “I couldn’t be prouder to be an American because of this and to celebrate the 25th anniversary.”

While waiting for city sidewalks and curb cuts to be repaired or installed, Jones says he will continue to focus on rebuilding his life.

"I really see it as a whole new experience, a part of life. I think it’s made me a better person,” he said.

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