State of Emergency: Accessibility to Emergency Communications for the Disabled in Metropolitan Areas

By: Christopher Tommarello

Abstract: An emergency situation places stress upon everyone involved, and often demands individuals work together to find a solution. Whether the victim, the rescuer, or simply a bystander, all parties are often panicked for survival and try to think quickly to right a wrong. Now, imagine trying to perform in an emergency in bustling New York City with one of your senses disabled. More specifically, imagine having to call for assistance during an emergency to either the police or fire department without having the ability to hear, and without public assistance available for aid. The United States has not fully progressed in terms of emergency situations and communication devices for those with disabilities. This has led to a current situation that threatens the disabled with possible unequal access to emergency communication devices in the near future.

Recent federal cases from the Southern District of New York illustrate the large disconnect that exists between the emergency communication systems available in the city and accessibility for those with disabilities. In Civic Association of the Deaf of New York, Inc. v. City of New York, New York City attempted to remove over 15,000 emergency call boxes located throughout the city, which would have eliminated access to emergency communications for the disabled, primarily the deaf. The court held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) the City was unable to remove the call boxes without providing an alternative means of communication for the deaf, raising questions about whether current technology has outpaced the coverage afforded by the ADA.

This article examines the discrepancies between the ADA and emergency communication systems in the United States, specifically New York City, and highlights the need for the law to be amended to require that as new technology is created for emergency communications, adaptations be made to continue accessibility for those with disabilities. The rise and use of emergency call boxes in New York City, coupled with the Civic Association case, demonstrates that without a major change to the ADA it is possible that certain individuals with disabilities will be unable to communicate with emergency services in the future. Changes must be made to afford all individuals the ability to access emergency communication devices.

No individual should be concerned about whether he or she will be able to access emergency services during an emergency simply because of a disability. Instead, all individuals should feel secure knowing that in the time of need they are able to access those who can provide help and ultimately relieve a stressful situation.

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