Lawsuit Challenges Inaccessibility of New York State’s Emergency Mass Notification System on Behalf of Blind Individuals

Click here for case documents
Flooding and submerged benches in Buffalo, NY during April 2018 windstorm
Image: Flooding and submerged benches in Buffalo, NY during April 2018 windstorm, via Wikimedia

 

October 14, 2020White Plains, NY – Today, Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of blind New Yorkers and the American Council of the Blind of New York, Inc. 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. Click here to read the complaint.

Hurricanes, floods, fires, winter storms, and nuclear disasters 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. It is critical that blind individuals be warned of emergencies in advance and that they receive 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.

Blind individuals often walk and/or rely on public transportation to get around and thus 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.

Plaintiff Ann Chiappetta, who initially informed the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services about NY-Alert’s inaccessibility in July 2018, said, “Not being able to access the NY-Alert website and receive emergency notifications via my smart phone puts my health and safety at risk. I have a right to be notified just like my friends and neighbors who are not blind.”

Karen Blachowicz, President of American Council of the Blind of New York, Inc. said, “The NY-Alert system must be made accessible for blind and visually-impaired people in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations. Alerts are in place to protect the general population and the blind or visually-impaired population must have equal access.”

“Blind individuals are at great risk during disasters and face life-threatening consequences when governments fail to include them in communications about emergencies,” said Michelle Iorio, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “New York cannot afford to wait for another disaster to strike before remedying the accessibility barriers on its Mass Notification System website that prevent blind individuals from receiving life-saving alerts.”

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.

Contacts

Michelle Iorio, Disability Rights Advocates miorio@dralegal.org 510-426-6916