On June 11, Atlanta became the latest major U.S. city to be sued for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act due to lack of access to public sidewalks. The lawsuit follows recent settlements over similar issues in Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of three Atlanta wheelchair users, alleging that, “the public rights of way within the city are, on the whole, difficult and sometimes impossible to navigate for those who rely on wheelchairs or similar devices for mobility.”
Damage to the city’s sidewalks “makes it impossible to pass certain locations without going off the sidewalk and going in the streets,” said Laurel Lawson, one of the plaintiffs. “I have fallen, I have risked injury and I’ve come to places where I’ve been stranded and simply unable to pass.”
Kim Harrison, a wheelchair user, advocate and member of the Greater Atlanta chapter of United Spinal Association, tells a similar story. “Some parts of town aren’t too bad, but there are lots of areas, even right near the Shepard Center [one of the top SCI rehab hospitals in the country] where you can’t go a block because the sidewalks are so busted up. You have to roll out in the street,” she says.
The condition of Atlanta’s sidewalks has been a long-standing issue for people with mobility impairments. In 2009, the city entered into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice to bring its sidewalks up to code by allocating millions of dollars in funds to repair sidewalks and install curb cuts. The city was also supposed to establish a system by which residents with disabilities could notify the city of specific areas in need of repair.
The current lawsuit alleges that the city has done neither, condemning the broken sidewalks as, “the result of a systemic, knowing failure by the City to maintain its public rights of way, on the whole, in a manner to ensure that they are equally accessible to people with mobility impairments.”
The city issued a statement responding to the lawsuit claiming it is not in violation of the 2009 DOJ settlements. “The city continues to address the identified needs and to cooperate with the DOJ by reporting its progress on an annual basis,” the statement read. “This activity remains a priority for the city, as it will continue to make these improvements in the most fiscally responsible and prudent manner possible.”
The Atlanta lawsuit comes at a time of crumbling public infrastructure across the nation and ever-tightening municipal budgets. In 2015, the city of Los Angeles settled an ADA sidewalk lawsuit by committing $1.4 billion to repairs and modifications over the next 30 years. In 2017, Seattle was compelled to construct some $300 million worth of curb cuts over the next 18 years. The repair bill for Portland, just settled in May, 2018, is estimated at some $113 million for curb cuts over the next 12 years.
Given the expanding instances of judicial precedent, it appears likely that unless cities start taking proactive action to modify and maintain sidewalks to ensure equal access for all, similar suits will continue being filed across the United States.