Lawsuit Filed Against San Antonio for Denying Access to Emergency and Disaster Planning

Posted on

January 31, 2023

Edie Surtees, Communications Director

At the Two-Year Anniversary of Texas Winter Storm Uri, People with Disabilities Face Same Dangerously Broken System

Federal Lawsuit Filed Against the City of San Antonio for Discrimination Leading to Life Threatening Conditions

SAN ANTONIO—A federal lawsuit was filed late last week against the City of San Antonio for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because individuals with disabilities were denied equal, effective, and equitable access to the City’s emergency and disaster planning compared to individuals without disabilities. Winston Strawn LLP, Daniel & Beshara, P.C., and the nonprofit legal firm Disability Rights Texas filed the complaint on behalf of nine plaintiffs, including four children, who faced dangerous circumstances during Winter Storm Uri.

The lawsuit says that the City’s Emergency Operations Plan denies people with disabilities effective, equal, and equitable access to response and recovery measures because the City failed to acknowledge, identify and plan for specific needs of the disability community of San Antonio. The City neglected to meet its obligation to reduce vulnerability of damage, injury and loss of life for individuals with disabilities by not requiring an inclusive planning process across emergency support functions.

The City failed on many counts, according to the complaint, including:

  • Inaccessible emergency shelter operations, transportation and evacuation plans.
  • Inaccessible commodities distribution.
  • Inaccessible emergency communications.
  • No outreach and community education about inclusive and accessible disaster and emergency programs.
  • No planning in sustained power outages for people with disabilities who rely on power for lifesaving equipment and treatments.
  • No steps taken as of yet to eliminate these illegal and discriminatory practices.

One of the plaintiffs is Yasmin who lives in San Antonio and has significant mobility and circulatory impairments that impact her ability to walk. She relies on electricity to power her wheelchair and many other critical pieces of equipment in her home.

During the Winter Storm of 2021, Yasmin’s home lost power. She tried multiple things to keep her legs warm without success and experienced great pain and the real danger of losing her legs due to her circulation being cut off. She could not leave her home because the City sets forth in its advanced disaster planning its shelters are not accessible for a person with her disabilities, and there was no City-run accessible evacuation transportation to get her anywhere else.

“Just because I have a disability doesn’t mean that I’m disposable,” said Yasmin. “People with disabilities have as much of a right to be protected as any other person. Just because we have more needs than others doesn’t mean we should be forgotten.”

Heather is a San Antonio resident and another plaintiff in the lawsuit. She is blind, hard of hearing, has multiple sclerosis (MS), and is immunocompromised. She requires clean and sterile water and the use of an electrically powered assistive device to receive effective accessible communications. She also cannot drive and relies on accessible transportation.

During the 2021 storm, Heather’s home lost power for five days, and she was unable to receive any information from the City about the storm, her power, or resources to help her. She could not go to a shelter because the City did not have accessible shelters to meet the needs of her disabilities and did not have accessible transportation. And there were no attempts by the City to deliver water or supplies to her.

Because she has MS, Heather’s muscles atrophied from the cold, but she had to push on and do whatever she had to do to survive. She rationed the small amount of bottled water she had. The apartment management where she lives was gone – there was no one there to help, no one to call, no cell signal, and she couldn’t even use her Life Alert.

“I was left all alone like my life didn’t matter,” said Heather. “It’s unimaginable that people with disabilities are treated like they are lesser people. I was actually in Washington D.C. when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed more than 30 years ago. How can it be that nothing has really changed for us since then?”

The complaint demands that the City implements an inclusive planning process which requires first acknowledging the impact disaster and emergencies have on community lifelines for the disability community and second accommodating and modifying current policies and procedures to afford meaningful access to all response and recovery programs.

Read the complaint

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Disability Rights Texas is the federally designated legal protection and advocacy agency (P&A) for people with disabilities in Texas established in 1977. Its mission is to help people with disabilities understand and exercise their rights under the law, ensuring their full and equal participation in society. Visit www.DRTx.org for more information.