Wheelchair Users Sue Over FDR Four Freedoms Park’s Major Barriers to Access

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Site dedicated to freedom denies freedom of access to people with disabilities

A woman using a power chair is at the base of a granite stairway in a park.
Plaintiff Edith Prentiss at the Four Freedoms Park. Photo by Joe Rappaport.

March 16, 2017—New York, NY—
In 2012, New York City welcomed the opening of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. Yet FDR, the President it commemorates who used a wheelchair for mobility, would have struggled to take in its dramatic beauty, as the monument begins and ends with steps.

Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit legal center, filed a class action lawsuit today in federal court on behalf of individuals with mobility disabilities alleging that the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy are blatantly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plaintiffs, including the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled (BCID) and several New York City residents who use wheelchairs, allege they are unable to access the Memorial in violation of long established law.

Accessibility barriers pervade the FDR Memorial in its entirety, including a large flight of stairs leading up to the entrance of the Monument. While paths exist around the base of the memorial, they circumvent the bulk of the monument and are comprised of uneven stones that make travel difficult for manual or power chair users. After traveling an unreasonably long distance down a side route, a chair user must begin an arduous back-tracking ascent up a path made of gravel to appreciate the vistas in the same way a non-wheelchair user can do.

At the opposite end of the FDR Memorial is a sunken terrace that provides an uninterrupted view of the East River, known in architecture as a ha-ha wall. Yet steps block wheelchair users from reaching that point. Plaintiffs also cite an inaccessible gift shop and non-ADA compliant restrooms.

Plaintiff Edith Prentiss, who uses a wheelchair due to her mobility disability, has visited the Memorial many times but has never been able to explore the terrace. “I’ve heard that those who run the park say that we can just enjoy the view afforded by the sunken terrace from elsewhere,” she said. “I find that offensive in the ‘back of the bus’ sort of way. I feel like they’ve prioritized their own aesthetics over our right to visit the Memorial, and are now waving away our concerns by saying: ‘What you got is good enough anyway.’ It’s not.”

Phil Beder, also a Plaintiff who uses a wheelchair says, “I am an FDR buff. He’s my hero. It’s patently ironic that a Memorial built in honor of him is rife with barriers for wheelchair users. Frankly, it makes me both mad and sad.”

“In a park dedicated to freedom, the choice to deny freedom of access to people with disabilities is just plain wrong,” said Joseph G. Rappaport, BCID’s Executive Director. “Denying the right of people with disabilities from enjoying the park fully isn’t in keeping with FDR’s life and legacy.”

“The Memorial was built very recently, decades after the ADA, and New York State should know better. We can’t figure out what they were thinking, but to leave it as is would give unfettered license to continue building important public spaces with no regard for the civil rights of persons with disabilities,” said Michelle Caiola, Litigation Director at DRA.

The suit seeks injunctive relief towards remedying all elements of inaccessibility allowing visitors with mobility impairments to visit the Memorial on equal terms with everyone else. A copy of the Complaint is available below.

About Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID)

The Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled, founded in 1956, is part of the independent living movement, which seeks to empower all people with disabilities to live full, independent lives. Our staff, composed largely of people with disabilities, offers services and runs advocacy campaigns to make housing, transportation and other aspects of daily living accessible to all. BCID has worked closely on several accessibility campaigns with Disability Rights Advocates. DRA represents us in BCID v. Bloomberg, which forced the City of New York to agree to new evacuation procedures for people with disabilities after Hurricane Sandy; and Taxis For All Campaign v. Taxi and Limousine Commission, a landmark decision requiring 50% of New York City’s yellow taxis to be accessible by 2020. For more information, visit http://bcid.org/.

About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA)

Disability Rights Advocates is the leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. With offices in Berkeley and New York City, DRA’s mission is to advance equal rights and opportunities for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases. Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to health care, employment, transportation, education, disaster preparedness planning, voting and housing. For more information, visit https://dralegal.org.


Jelena Kolic, Staff Attorney (312) 559-4660