Disabled New Yorkers Sue for Safer Streets

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Myrna Driffin stands with her service dog Polly at a curb cut at 14th street and 5th Avenue, where the "detectable warning bumps" lead her diagonally through the intersection.

When Myrna Driffin walks down the street, she negotiates her way through crowds of people more focused on their smartphones than they are on her.

“I wonder who’s the blind one then, let’s put it that way,” Driffin jokes.

The 57-year-old was diagnosed with acute congenital glaucoma when she was two and lost her vision completely by the time she went to college. She lives on 23rd Street in Manhattan and walks home from an internship at the Center for Independence of the Disabled near Union Square. Her guide dog Polly, a gentle golden retriever-Labrador mix, walks on her left side.

But maneuvering city sidewalks and across intersections poses an ongoing risk. Even with Polly, Driffin said there are times when she’s walked straight into traffic.

“People either holler, ‘Miss, miss, you’re in the road’ or else I hear them beeping at me,” said Driffin. “That’s real scary.”

Driffin is one of two named plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit filed in United States District Court on Wednesday, suing the city for violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 24th anniversary last week. Advocates argue too many city sidewalks lack proper curb cuts and are not accessible to people with disabilities.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made pedestrian safety a top priority of his Vision Zero transportation plan, but the suit argues the city has not done enough to make sure the streets are safe for all New Yorkers, of all abilities.

“We were really excited when we initially heard about Vision Zero because we thought this would be a great opportunity to open a dialogue about pedestrian access barriers and safety problems for people with disabilities,” said Julia Pinover-Kupiec, a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates who filed the suit on behalf of Griffin, a wheelchair-bound New Yorker named Dustin Jones and the Center for Independence of the Disabled.

“Unfortunately we were really disappointed when we approached the administration about these problems and were rebuffed,” she said.

The city settled a similar lawsuit in 2002 filed by the Eastern Paralyzed Veteran’s Association, now called the United Spinal Association. That settlement required the city to install thousands of curb cuts and spend several hundred million dollars.

Since the settlement, the Department of Transportation has installed curb cuts at nearly 150,000 locations.

But that settlement did not require any maintenance, said James Weisman, executive director and counsel for the United Spinal Association.

“There are many [curb cuts] where the street has changed elevation, or, you know, the street has sunk down and the curb ramp leaves a big lip. So front wheels hit and people can fall out of their chair,” Weisman said.

In separate statements about the city’s outreach to the disabled community — before the federal lawsuit was filed — both Victor Calise, commissioner of the Office for People with Disabilities, and Polly Trottenberg, the transportation commissioner, noted the city recently added a policy analyst for accessibility to the Vision Zero team.

“Over 90 percent of New York’s street corners feature pedestrian ramps, more than 80 intersections are equipped with Accessible Pedestrian Signals and we have installed 430 detectable warning strips to aid the visually impaired,”  Trottenberg said in her statement.

Advocates say those numbers paint a rosier picture than the reality on the ground because many of the existing curb cuts have problems. The new lawsuit would require the city to identify problem intersections and make a schedule to repair them. The suit only applies only to lower Manhattan, below 14th Street, where many city, state and federal office buildings are located.

The area also includes the financial district, where Monica Bartley, 60, demonstrates just how hard it is to operate her hand-propelled wheelchair at the south west corner of Broad Street. Bartley struggles so much to scale the inclined curb cut, she lets out an exasperated laugh.

“This curb cut is really very steep,” Bartley sighed, “so I need some help to get up. I definitely can’t do this one on my own.”

At an unrelated press event Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio said he had not seen the lawsuit yet but stressed, “we’re very, very devoted to making this city not only accessible, but safe for those who are disabled.”

Pinover-Kupiec, the attorney for DRA, said she’s hopeful that the city will negotiate a solution.

Monica Bartley on sidewalk on Water Street / Brigid Bergin

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