SDNY Rules NYC’s Crosswalks Inaccessible to the Blind, Violate the ADA

On October 20, in the Southern District of New York, the Honorable Paul A. Engelmayer ruled that the City of New York must add nonvisual alert devices to crosswalks to bring the city in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protections for the blind. The holding arose as a result of the granting of a motion for summary judgment for the plaintiff, the American Council for the Blind of New York, who brought the legal action after data showed only 3.4% of crosswalks contained the alert devices. 

The judge explained that without the nonvisual alert devices, “pedestrians with visual disabilities often encounter danger, inconvenience and humiliation while attempting to use the City’s crosswalks. Unable to reliably locate crosswalks or time their crossing, they risk being hit by cars, and becoming stranded in the middle of intersections and may be unwillingly grabbed by strangers hoping to assist them.” This, the court reasoned, is in clear violation of the ADA’s mandate that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” Despite objections from the defendant that the devices were not a “service, program or activity,” the judge held that precedent made clear that “the Second Circuit has construed ‘services, programs or activities’ as a ‘catch-all phrase that prohibits all discrimination by a public entity, regardless of the context’ ” and thus “the act of installing and maintaining pedestrian crossing signals at crosswalks is a normal function of the (city), and therefore falls within the scope of (the ADA).”

However, the opinion explained, the analysis does not end at a determination that the nonvisual alert devices generally are mandated by the ADA, as the harder question is how many. The court, while failing to specify a certain number of devices required for ADA compliance, did explain that the standard is whether so few nonvisual alert devices exist as to ban blind persons from “meaningful access” to the use of crosswalks. The judge then announced that while another hearing would be needed to determine the exact number of nonvisual alert devices the city must provide, that precedent clearly requires more than 3.4% of crosswalks to be installed with said devices. 

The court concluded by holding that, “In sum, the City’s observation that the ADA … may not require the installation of (devices) at each of its 13,200 (crosswalks) does nothing to defend the status quo. Whatever the point would be at which the number (of devices) at such crossings would afford blind and visually impaired persons meaningful access to the pedestrian grid within the meaning of these statutes, that standard is clearly not met today, with more than 95% of such crossings containing signals accessible only to sighted persons.”

The plaintiff is represented by Disability Rights Advocates.