Chiappetta vs. New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services
On October 14, Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of blind New Yorkers and the American Council of the Blind, New York against New York state entities, challenging the inaccessibility of “NY-Alert,” a Mass Notification System intended to warn New Yorkers and visitors of emergencies and other critical information in a timely manner to help save lives.
Blind individuals who use screen readers to access visual information cannot independently use the NY-Alert website to register for urgent alerts or to choose how they receive alerts. Instead, these individuals must secure the assistance of a third party and give up the independence enjoyed by others who use NY-Alert. Further, many blind individuals live alone and/or do not have the means to retain sighted assistance, and so must forgo using the NY-Alert website and forgo receiving its notifications altogether, at great risk to themselves.
Hurricanes, nuclear disasters, floods, fires, and winter storms are a few of the many potential emergencies that New York residents and visitors face. Effective emergency preparedness and planning must include certain essential components, such as public notification and communication before and during emergencies. The failure to notify blind individuals about such emergencies via NY-Alert creates severe hardships for blind individuals and can be life-threatening to them during these emergencies.
Without NY-Alert notifications, individuals are not warned of emergencies in advance, are not provided information on how and if they will be evacuated, where they will be sheltered, and how and if they will be transported to such shelter.
Because blind individuals cannot drive, they often walk and/or rely on public transportation to get around. Blind individuals face a distinct disadvantage when they encounter sudden route closures and other interruptions in transportation service that require them to deviate from the routes that they are familiar with navigating. Additionally, strong winds and other severe weather events can be extremely disruptive to blind individuals who use a cane to walk and to those who rely on their hearing for orientation. It is thus imperative that blind individuals receive weather and transportation warnings as early as possible, so that they can avoid dangerous or unfamiliar terrain.
Unfortunately, New York State has failed to make the NY-Alert website accessible, despite knowledge of the barriers faced by Plaintiffs and others who attempt to use the website, despite the clear guidance readily available on how to make websites accessible, and despite the urgency of such alerts, especially during the current pandemic.
New York’s refusal to make the NY-Alert website accessible discriminates against blind individuals on the basis of disability under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This lawsuit seeks injunctive and declaratory relief to require the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to make the website for NY-Alert accessible to individuals who use screen readers so that they can use the system equally, privately, and independently to register for critical alerts.