Report slams accessibility in New York City schools

child outside school in wheelchair
83% of NYC schools found noncompliant with ADA

Just 17 percent of New York City elementary schools are fully accessible to students with disabilities, according to results of a two-year investigation, released December 21 by the US Department of Justice.

“Our investigation revealed that, 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the City is still not fully compliant, and children with disabilities and their families are being denied the right to equal access to a public school education.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a news release. “We have asked the City for a response, including an outline and timeline of corrective actions that will remedy this unacceptable state of affairs.”

Under the DOJ’s ADA regulations, school districts must ensure their facilities are “readily accessible and usable by” individuals with disabilities.

The 14-page letter, submitted to the NYC Department of Education, criticized the City’s system for rating a school’s accessibility compliance, namely its practice of designating large numbers of schools as “functionally accessible,” a term not defined under the ADA.

In these schools, DOJ investigators found a range of obstacles, ranging from stairways to narrow hallways making the schools nearly impossible to navigate. Six of the city’s 32 school districts contain no fully accessible schools, often forcing students to transfer to schools far away from their neighborhoods.

In addition, the letter highlights the city’s accessibility shortcomings even in alterations to existing facilities, pointing to accessibility violations regarding “fire alarms, door hardware, toilet partitions, cafeteria seating, main office counters, library furniture and playground areas.” In one Queens school, built in 2000, the city failed to include an accessible elevator.

In its 2015-2019 Capital Plan, the DOE allocated more than $100 million to improve accessibility at 11 schools. The DOJ describes as “woefully inefficient.”

NYC DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said the DOE, which has 30 days to respond to the letter, is reviewing the DOJ’s findings.

“Our goal is to ensure that all our students have access to a high-quality education,” Hartfield told the New York Daily News. “A student’s disability should never get in the way.”

For disability advocates, the DOJ’s involvement was a long time coming.

“It’s exciting to see the US Attorney take action. It’s been an issue for a long time,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, told the New York Post.