MANHATTAN — In what is being hailed as a victory for the handicapped and their advocates, a federal judge said Friday that the city must provide "meaningful" access to cabs for the disabled and ruled that until a plan to do so is developed, all new medallions must be for wheelchair accessible cabs.
In his decision, Manhattan Federal Court Judge George B. Daniels said that the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act because only about 230 cabs out of a total of more than 13,200 are accessible for people with disabilities. That does not constitute meaningful access, the judge wrote, and must change.
“The TLC must propose a comprehensive plan to provide meaningful access to taxicab service for disabled wheelchair bound passengers,” Daniels wrote.
“Until such a plan is proposed and approved by this court, all new taxi medallions sold or new street-hail livery licenses or permits issued by the TLC must be for wheelchair accessible vehicles.”
The decision, which Daniels promised to issue before Christmas, is the result of a lengthy legal battle between the city and disability rights advocates over whether taxis should be made wheelchair accessible—and if so, how many.
The final stand in the case came more than a month ago during a court hearing in which city attorney Robin Binder claimed that the city was under no obligation, under the ADA, to require any taxis to be accessible—even the 230 some cabs that can currently accommodate wheelchairs and scooters.
The judge, however, seemed shocked by that argument.
“Your position is [that] no one has any responsibility, and it would be perfectly legal if there was not a single accessible taxi cab in New York City?” the judge asked. “You understand how extreme that sounds?”
The taxi accessibility issue also gained attention from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed off earlier this week on a new bill that will make street hails legal for livery cabs.
Twenty percent of those 6,000 new street-hail permits must go to wheelchair accessible vehicles. At the same time, the bill also authorized the sale of 2,000 new taxi medallions, all of which will be reserved for accessible cabs.
In a statement, Robin Binder, the attorney representing the city in the case, said the city was “disappointed” with the ruling.
“We respectfully disagree with the court's decision because the ADA specifically exempts taxicabs from having to be wheelchair accessible,” Binder said. “Nonetheless, the city has been working closely with the governor's office and the legislature, and agreed with them earlier this week on a comprehensive plan for wheelchair accessibility.”
Binder added that the city is now considering its next steps.
The question as to what exactly “meaningful access” will mean remains to be determined. But for the disability advocates fighting in the case, increased accessibility in general constitutes a victory.
“We are thrilled,” said Julia Pinover, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, a group of disability rights advocates, in the case.
“[Meaningful access] doesn’t have a meaning in this context yet,” Pinover said. "[But] the fact that the system’s being ordered to change is the important part.”
James Weisman, senior vice president and general counsel at the United Spinal Association, agreed.
“We have been fighting for 15 years,” said Weisman, who was one of the attorney’s who battled for wheelchair accessibility in New York City's buses and subways three decades ago.
“Taxis were a missing link, and we’ve got them now,” Weisman said. “It feels terrific.”