Taxis must be wheelchair accessible, judge rules

NEW YORK — A federal judge on Friday barred the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission from issuing permits for taxicabs unless they’re accessible to people who use wheelchairs, a decision that was praised by advocates for the disabled as a milestone that could have national implications.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels said in his written ruling that the commission can provide taxi medallions only for wheelchair-accessible vehicles until it produces a comprehensive plan to provide meaningful access to taxicab service for disabled passengers. He said such a plan must include targeted goals and standards and anticipated measurable results.

“Meaningful access for the disabled to public transportation services is not a utopian goal or political promise, it is a basic civil right,” the judge wrote.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit accusing the taxi commission of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 civil rights law that generally prohibits discrimination based on someone’s physical or mental disability. The lawsuit was brought by disability rights groups.

Only 233 of the more than 13,000 taxis in the nation’s biggest city are wheelchair accessible. That’s fewer than 2 percent.

City attorneys said they were disappointed with the judge’s ruling.

Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit legal center that advocates for people with disabilities, called the ruling “the best Christmas gift our clients could ask for.”

“The ruling means New Yorkers who use wheelchairs will be able to participate in city life in a way that wasn’t possible before,” Disability Rights Advocates managing attorney Mary-Lee Smith said. “Judge Daniels’ decision is the first of its kind in the country, and our hope is that it will have national implications.”

Smith said a taxi is wheelchair accessible when it provides a ramp that permits the person using the wheelchair to remain in the wheelchair while boarding the taxi.

Another lawyer, Julia Pinover, called the ruling a “landmark civil rights accomplishment for all people with disabilities.”

“Tonight, tens of thousands of veterans, elderly and other disabled New Yorkers are absolutely thrilled,” she said. “My clients will be able to own their own days and move about this city.”

The city’s lead attorney in the case, Robin Binder, said the city disagreed with the judge because the Americans with Disabilities Act exempts taxicabs from having to be wheelchair accessible. Binder said the city was considering what steps to take next in court.

Binder noted that the city worked closely with the governor’s office and the state Legislature before agreeing with them earlier this week on a comprehensive plan for wheelchair accessibility, including the issuance of 2,000 new taxi medallions for wheelchair-accessible yellow taxicabs and the requirement that 20 percent of all livery hails be wheelchair accessible.

The judge, in his decision, wrote that actions by the governor and Legislature “may be steps towards providing meaningful access to the New York City taxicab system to disabled persons who require wheelchairs,” but he added the law requires immediate and full compliance.

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