The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been violated by 83% of New York City’s public elementary schools, which are not fully accessible to students with disabilities, reports Benjamin Weiser for The New York Times.
The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, sent a heated letter to the top lawyer for the Education Department this week saying that a two-year federal investigation found that six school districts serving over 50,000 elementary students did not have even one school that was fully in compliance.
Bharara has asked the city to respond and wants an outline and timeline of the actions that will be taken to correct this “unacceptable state of affairs.” His 14-page letter gives NYC 30 days to respond. The investigation was not disclosed to the public at the time it was taking place.
A spokesman for the Education Department, Harry Hartfield, said the department was committed to increasing accessibility in schools and was in the process of reviewing the letter. He added that the department’s recent capital plan had set aside $100 million for projects aimed at accessibility.
Bharara’s office said that the disabled population includes not only students but family members and teachers as well. One parent, according to the government, had to travel to her child’s school every day of school to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, the cafeteria, and other parts of the school where programs take place. Otherwise, her child would have had to spend considerable amounts of time before and after school getting to a building that could support her physical needs.
The most blatant failure by the city, say many, was the construction of an addition to a Queens school in 2000. The added portion of the school had an elevator that was not wheelchair accessible, and door knobs, “grab bars,” drinking fountains, sinks, and faucets that were noncompliant. Also, visual alarms required for classrooms were not installed.
“The city’s failure to consider the needs of individuals with disabilities when upgrading and renovating its existing facilities is inexcusable,” the government said in the letter, which was signed by two senior lawyers in the office’s civil rights unit, Lara K. Eshkenazi and Jeannette A. Vargas.
Included in the letter was a list of violations in 11 schools across all boroughs. Ten of these schools were labeled “not accessible” and one was designated as only “functionally accessible.” This description meant that the school did not have “certain crucial accessible features,” as explained by the letter. Bharara said this definition made the government question whether the city’s categorizations were accurate.
The New York Daily News’ Ben Chapman reports that currently there are approximately 193,000 kids in NYC schools who have special needs.
In his letter, Bharara noted that 25 years after the passage of the ADA, New York City students with disabilities are still not being given equal access to what is a fundamental human right.