Public elementary schools in New York City are woefully inadequate in providing students with disabilities equal access to facilities, federal prosecutors say.
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued a scathing letter to the nation’s largest school district spelling out the findings of a two-year investigation into the physical accessibility of the system’s elementary school facilities.
He concluded that New York City school officials have routinely ignored the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Our investigation revealed that, 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city is still not fully compliant,” Bharara says, “and children with disabilities and their families are being denied the right to equal access to a public school education.”
In a 14-page letter of findings, Bharara notes that New York City concedes that “83 percent of public elementary schools are not ‘fully accessible’ to people with disabilities.”
Six sections of the school system, serving a total of more than 50,000 students “do not have a single school that is ‘fully accessible,’” the letter states.
“Children with disabilities are frequently denied the experience that many of their peerstake for granted: attending their local public school with their friends and neighbors,” Bharara says. “Instead, starting in kindergarten, these children are often forced unnecessarily to travel outside of their neighborhoods to schools where there are no familiar faces.
"The result is that children with disabilities and their families are being deprived of the countless meaningful and tangible benefits of being part of their own local school communities, including full and easy participation in after-school and extracurricular activities; attendance without hardship at parent-teacher conferences; reasonable commutes that don't unduly interfere with study, homework, and family time; and natural bonds of friendship and community developed with neighborhood children through play dates and school activities.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is asking the New York City Education Department to take immediate steps to address its lack of compliance with the ADA.
“The city must develop a comprehensive plan to survey all elementary schools and recommend a systemwide remediation plan to address the lack of accessibility,” Bharara says. “The city should make it a priority toincrease the accessibility of the first floors of school buildings and the rooms used by all students, teachers, parents, or other visitors to the schools.”
Bharara characterized the city’s defense of its inaccessible facilities as “unacceptable and inadequate.”
The City has defended its failure to make a sufficient number of elementary school facilities accessible by pointing to the fact that the thousands of children with mobility impairments who attend public school constitute only a small percentage of the overall student population,” the letter says. “It will always be the case that children with disabilities will be a relatively small percentage of the entire student population. Obviously that cannot be a basis not to comply with the ADA.”
Among the examples of non-compliance uncovered by federal investigators: fire alarm systems, door hardware, toilet partitions, cafeteria seating, main office counters, library furniture, and playground areas.
The letter singled out a school addition built in the Queens borough 10 years after passage of the ADA.
“Non-ADA-compliant features include ramps with slopes that are too steep for wheelchairs to navigate safely, insufficient clear space on the ramps to allow wheelchairs to make turns, changes in level that are not beveled, and ramps with either no handrails or handrails without compliant extensions and edge control, rendering them unsafe,” the letter states.