The city of Los Angeles is unprepared to meet the needs of the disabled in the case of a disaster and is discriminating against them by failing to include the disabled in its emergency preparedness plans, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Siding with disability-rights groups who sued the city on behalf of an estimated 800,000 disabled L.A. residents, U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo B. Marshall found that Los Angeles doesn't have a plan to notify and evacuate the disabled or provide them with transportation and shelter in a disaster.
"Because of the city's failure to address their unique needs, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to harm in the event of an emergency or disaster," the judge wrote, noting that the city's own Department on Disability reported in 2008 that disabled residents are "at-risk for suffering and death in disproportionate numbers."
Attorneys for the city had contended in court papers that the allegations in the lawsuit were "premised on hypothetical scenarios or opinions." They argued that the responsibility to meet the needs of the disabled was with the American Red Cross and that people with disabilities should carry some of the burden.
The lawsuit "fails to reference the necessity of personal planning or preparedness," attorneys for the city wrote in court filings.
Marshall said she was unconvinced, saying the city's emergency plans "must be open and accessible to all of its residents." She found that the city had violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and ordered officials to meet with the parties that brought the lawsuit within three weeks to come up with a plan.
City lawyers were not immediately available for comment.
Advocates said the need for a plan encompassing the disabled was highlighted during Hurricane Katrina, when mortality rates among the disabled and seniors were drastically higher than for the general population.
Shawna Parks, legal director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, said that when she and other advocates obtained copies of the city's 200-page emergency operations plan through public records requests, it became apparent there was no consideration for the needs of the disabled.
Parks said the ruling was the first of its kind in the nation and said she hoped it would lead to reforms around the country.
"It was the first case that's addressed it," she said. "It sets a precedent that makes a lot of other jurisdictions pay attention."