Investigation slams city over accommodations for students with disabilities

New York City provides “inexcusable” accommodations for its young students with disabilities and has failed to address the problem for years, according to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation released Monday.

In a scathing letter, the office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, details inadequate school entrances, alarm systems, and playgrounds that keep physically disabled students from attending their local elementary schools. Instead, these students are forced to travel long distances to receive the same education as their peers — a breach so severe it amounts to a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the investigation concluded.

“Nowhere is it more important to tear down the barriers to equal access than with respect to the education of our children,” reads the letter, signed by an attorney from the federal justice department. “But today, in New York City, 25 years after passage of the ADA, children with physical disabilities still do not have equal access to this most fundamental of rights.”

The letter, the product of a two-year investigation, offers a series of startling statistics. Six of the city’s community school districts — districts 3, 5, 8, 12, 16 and 21 —  have no “fully accessible” elementary schools. All told, 83 percent of public elementary schools in New York City do not meet that fully accessible standard, the report found.

The report also notes that half of the city’s students whose only disability is a mobility impairment end up at District 75 schools, which are sites meant for students with autism, cognitive delays, and emotional challenges.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built long before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But even when renovating schools, the city has failed to upgrade existing facilities to accommodate students with disabilities, according to the report. An addition to a school in Queens built in 2000 includes an inappropriately sized elevator and bathroom grab bars.

The letter says the city defended its failure to provide disabled students access to schools by saying they only represent a small part of the public-school population. The letter dismissed this explanation as “unacceptable and inadequate.”

“The language in this is really sharp,” said Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at the nonprofit Advocates for Children. “They’re not messing around at all.”

Officials at the education department said they remain committed to helping students with disabilities and that their latest capital improvement plan sets aside $100 million for accessibility projects.

“We are reviewing the United States Attorney’s letter and remain committed to increasing the accessibility of our school buildings,” said education department spokesman Harry Hartfield.

The letter itself won’t immediately change facilities for students, Moroff said, but it provides validation to many advocates, families and lawyers who have been concerned about this problem for years.

“The fact that the DOJ is going to be looking at New York City and requiring New York City to answer to it is pretty tremendous,” Moroff said.