Why Accessible Pedestrian Signals Are Now a Lawsuit Waiting to Happen

Image Description: A person using a white cane walking on a crosswalk

Photo credit: Andi Weiland | Boehringer Ingelheim, Societypix.org

In this article, my friends Ken Nakata from Converge Accessibility, Josef Pevsner  from National Organization on Disability, and I come together to discuss and analyze the recent brief in the Am. Council of the Blind of N.Y., Inc. v. City of New York accessible pedestrian signals lawsuit.

What Happened?

In Am. Council of the Blind of N.Y., Inc. v. City of N.Y., 495 F. Supp. 3d 211 (S.D.N.Y. 2020), the plaintiffs, a pair of blind New York residents, sued New York City, a fairly large yet relatively unheard of metropolis, alleging that the city’s pedestrian traffic infrastructure was inaccessible to blind pedestrians due to, among other things, a lack of accessible pedestrian signals (APS). The December opinion from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York provided a detailed court-mandated plan of action to address the inaccessibility of New York City’s streets.

Why Is This Case Important?

Although this lawsuit and the subsequent court action plan are fairly ordinary, there are a few interesting things to note about the case.

  • This lawsuit is against a city government and was filed accordingly under Title II of the ADA, whereas many digital accessibility cases that attract large attention are filed under Title III
  • The lawsuit was filed as a class action, with the plaintiffs representing an entire class of people who may have been similarly limited by New York’s lack of APS
  • The settlement provides a comprehensive action plan with several specific large-scale responsibilities for New York City, such as installing over 10,000 APS, to be implemented over 10+ years

Ultimately though, the primary reason this is important is that in the US, as New York goes, many cities follow. This decision is likely at or near the start of a long-cascading series of measures to make all pedestrian signals in the US accessible. While that may take decades, a decision like this is often necessary for this kind of massive movement.

Let’s Take a Look at the Accessibility Obstacles

In 2018, the City of New York put out a Call for Innovation, seeking innovative solutions for accessible pedestrian signal technology solutions. One of the major concerns was around cost and scalability; the city needed a solution that could be affordably installed across thousands of intersections. The cost per intersection at that time for the 78 intersections where APS was installed in New York City was $43,060, for a total of $3,358,690.

Back in 2018, Thomas Logan of Equal Entry teamed up with Chuck Groom, a software engineer and serial entrepreneur, to propose a solution for the City’s Call for Innovation. In the following video, Thomas Logan discusses the technological implications of the case with Chuck Groom.

Thomas Logan also thought about how to make information about the APS available to everyone in a digital format. How does someone who relies on APS find out where they are available? Check out Accessible Maps on the Web to learn some techniques that can be used to improve equitable access to this information.

What Does This Case Mean for Digital Accessibility and the Law?

In the following audio clip, I discuss the Am. Council of the Blind of N.Y., Inc. v. City of New York accessible pedestrian signals lawsuit with Ken Nakata, and Ken points out some of the most interesting legal aspects of the case.

Josef Pevsner of A11yInSight and Ken Nakata of Converge Accessibility discuss the recent New York City accessible pedestrian signals lawsuit

The transcript of the interview follows the closing.

Closing

Although this may not be the most extraordinary accessibility lawsuit in the courts right now, the Am. Council of the Blind of N.Y., Inc. v. City of New York accessible pedestrian signals lawsuit has major implications for accessibility at a nexus between the built environment and technology. Hopefully, this case and the subsequent remediation by New York City will set a precedent and a foundation to build upon for other cities to holistically consider accessibility as it relates to every part of urban life.

Transcript of Interview

Josef Pevsner: Hey Ken, have you read about the American Council for the Blind’s recent lawsuit against New York City over inaccessible pedestrian signals?

Ken Nakata: Why, yes I did! I thought it was an interesting opinion. It looks like the City has its work cut out for it.

Josef Pevsner: While this isn’t the sort of case that we normally talk about, how do you see it in the bigger picture of ADA cases?

Ken Nakata: Yes, most of the time we talk about web accessibility, which is only a tiny (but very interesting) corner in the bigger picture of ADA cases. What also makes this case interesting is the fact that it’s against a city government, so it falls under Title II of the ADA and not Title III.

That’s relevant because cases like Winn-Dixie revolve around the difficult question of whether the business is a “place of public accommodation” under Title III. By contrast, Title II focuses on the programs, services and activities of a state or local government — no matter where or how those services are offered. Also, because this is a built environment case, it also raises some other avenues of liability, such as the new construction and alterations requirements.

Josef Pevsner: Did you see that remedial plan? Is this kind of thing standard in these cases?

Ken Nakata: Yup, in this kind of case, this is exactly the kind of remedial plan I would expect. It’s going to take the City years to phase in accessible pedestrian signals. Part of it is going to be based on need, part of it is going to be based on renovations that were already needed, and all of it has to fit into an overall plan for getting this project done by specific milestones and budget. So there are a lot of moving parts that require a lot of attention.

Josef Pevsner: How on earth will New York be able to meet those massive requirements?

Ken Nakata: It’s going to be massive, for sure, but not that unusual. When the ADA was passed, there was a lot of pushback from state and local governments about how the law was an unfunded mandate. Yes, it’s definitely a lot of work but it’s part of civic planning that every state and local government already does.

In terms of scope, it’s not that terribly large. For instance, one of my friends was responsible for helping the State of California install curb ramps in all of its intersection. Think about that for a minute — a curb cut at every intersection in the whole state of California? Now THAT is a massive project. But ADA Title II never required that these changes all had to be made — or that it had to be done instantly. Instead, Title II has a lot of flexibility.

Josef Pevsner: This one seems to have a lot of implications for emerging technology, could other daily-use technology solutions follow a similar path? If so, which ones?

Ken Nakata: Absolutely. The City of New York was looking at the same technology used in Paris — a company called Okeenea. Years ago, I worked at a company that had its booth next to EO Guidage — the predecessor of Okeenea — and I became fascinated by their indoor wayfinding technology. That’s a huge game-changer technology.

It’s basically “indoor GPS” navigation. The guys at Okeenea were doing this a decade ago — and now with technologies like ultra-wideband (UWB), it’s become SO much more precise. My friend Mike Hess at Blind Institute of Technology has a great example of UWB-based indoor wayfinding installed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Accessibility Compliance Help

Our years of experience working with lawyers, as well as being expert witnesses in lawsuits, has given us a unique perspective when it comes to explaining and justifying our clients’ accessibility compliance.

If you are experiencing any legal issues related to the accessibility of your technology, please contact us to discuss how we can help.

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