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Disability groups sue city, claims its emergency planning is subpar

Luba Shvetz is evacuated to a shelter in

Luba Shvetz is evacuated to a shelter in Coney Island as the area prepares for hurricane Irene. (Getty) Photo Credit: Luba Shvetz is evacuated to a shelter in Coney Island as the area prepares for Irene. (Getty)

Two leading civil rights groups filed suit in Federal District Court Monday claiming that the City of New York and Mayor Michael Bloomberg place disabled people in life-threatening situations by failing to take their “unique needs” into consideration when planning for emergencies and disasters.

The groups allege that the city is in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, while receiving federal money. They are asking the city to craft disaster plans that include ways to evacuate persons in wheelchairs from their homes, to provide architecturally accessible shelters, to offer accessible transportation to and from shelters, and to make sure that public notification and communication plans concerning floods, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and other emergencies be made accessible to people who are blind or deaf.

Disability Rights Advocates, a legal organization which specializes in high-impact class action cases, and the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, which helps people live independently, claim Hurricane Irene exposed the vulnerabilities of the 900,000 disabled New Yorkers. Many emergency centers were not accessible to people in wheelchairs during the hurricane, according to the suit, and the Mayor, after ordering that bus, subway and paratransit services be shut down on August 27, told New Yorkers to walk or “find some way to use a car or taxi.”

But only 1.8% of yellow cabs and .02% of other for-hire vehicles are accessible to people in wheelchairs, according to the suit. And the school buses used in the evacuations had no lifts or accessible seating.

Kate Ahlers, a spokes woman for the NYC Law Dept. said that everyone who called 311 seeking assistance with evacuations during Hurricane Irene was assisted. Also, she said, after the evacuation order was issued "the City aggressively communicated the locations of the evacuation centers and also specifically targeted service providers who work with people with special needs." NYC also mobilized various vehicles to assist "anyone who felt they needed help" evacuating, she noted. The City had not yet seen the lawsuit, she added.

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