Justice Department joins NYC taxi accessibility lawsuit

In a surprise move, the U.S. Justice Department filed an amicus brief on behalf of a group of disability advocacy groups who are arguing that New York City is discriminating against people with disabilities by failing to make new taxis wheelchair accessible, or provide appropriate alternatives.

New York City yellow cab in traffic
New York City Taxi Cab

In January, Disability Rights Advocates and the United Spinal Association filed a class action lawsuit against the city, charging it is violating federal law by failing to accommodate wheelchair users. Of  New York’s cities 13,237 yellow cab taxis, just 231 contain ramps or lifts or other tools making them wheelchair accessible. About 2,600 taxis are retired or replaced each year.

The lawsuit could halt the city’s “Taxi of Tomorrow” initiative, which recently selected a new Nissan design, which is not wheelchair accessible, to be used exclusively for taxis as early as 2013.

Davis Yassky, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, told the New York Daily News that the Justice Department’s move is misguided because the city is in the process of implementing a dispatch system so people with disabilities can call for wheelchair accessible taxis, set to launch in March.

The state legislature is also likely to take up a measure to expand the number of medallions the commission must provide to monitor the number of taxis in the city’s fleet. Under current city policy, none of these new taxis would be required to be wheelchair accessible.

The Justice Department said the the lawsuit is necessary to keep the pressure on the city to improve transportation accessibility to New York’s estimated 60,000 wheelchair users.

“(New York City) should not be allowed to continue to violate the (Americans with Disabiltiies Act) for an indeterminate amount of time based on their hope that the dispatch system will operate smoothly and the state legislature will pass a bill,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara wrote in the court brief.

For Disability Rights Advocates and the United Spinal Association, whom recently won a major lawsuit requiring New York’s city’s subway stations to implement accessibility measures during renovations, the lawsuit is another step in ensuring that New York City is not limiting the mobility of individuals in the nation’s most public transportation dependent city.

“Without an accessible medallion taxi, New Yorkers and visitors with mobility disabilities are deprived of all that New York City offers -going to work, to school, visiting family and friends, and attending educational, cultural, entertainment and political events… Each day, countless New Yorkers with mobility disabilities are excluded from participating in city life because the city’s dearth of accessible medallion taxis leaves them with no practical means to travel from one location to another,” the advocacy groups stated in their complaint.