Article Courtesy of The Palm
By JANE MUSGRAVE
Published December 6, 2007
BOCA RATON — Leaving home is a complex
process for Josefina Fontanez.
First, she uses her teeth to turn the dead
bolt. Then, she bites the smaller lock on the doorknob and turns it.
Finally, she takes the knob into her mouth, turns her head until she hears
a click and pushes the door open with her forehead.
Life without arms and legs isn't easy, says
the surprisingly upbeat Fontanez, 46.
"It really hurts my teeth," she
But getting out is only half of the
problem. The teeth-straining process doesn't work in reverse.
If the fiercely independent woman wants to
get back in, she has to rely on the kindness - and availability - of
strangers to open the door for her.
Having been stuck in the hot sun or pouring
rain, Fontanez has learned an inescapable truth: As easy as it may be to
motor her wheelchair to a nearby corner, catch a bus and go to the mall,
or just go outside and sit, it's better just to stay put.
"I'm locked up in jail," she
For more than a year, Fontanez has been
trying to break free. But each time she has gotten close, officials of the
Casa Del Rio Condominium Association have stood in her way.
This week she filed a lawsuit, asking a
judge to force the association to let her install electronic doors that
would offer her the chance to leave her one-bedroom home by herself and,
more importantly, get back in.
In what South Florida advocates for the
disabled say is among the most egregious violations of state fair housing
laws they have ever seen, the condominium association has refused her
request, even though it wouldn't cost the organization a dime.
The Florida Division of Vocational
Rehabilitation agreed to pay to install doors on her unit and in the lobby
that she could open with a remote control she could operate with her one
When the association refused to approve the
installation of the doors, a lawyer with the Coalition for Independent
Living Options filed a complaint with the Palm Beach County Office of
Equal Opportunity. In August, the agency found reasonable cause to believe
that the association had discriminated against Fontanez by denying her
Even then, the association refused to drop
its objection to the doors.
"I never in a million years imagined
it would go this far," said Genevieve Cousminer, a coalition lawyer.
Exactly why the association is adamantly
opposed to the doors is unclear. Neither the manager of the condominium -
the president of Pointe Management Group, which oversees the condo - nor
its attorney returned phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Cousminer said she was perplexed by their
objections. At one point, a manager said that before Fontanez rented the
unit from its Boston owner in 2004, she promised that a former boyfriend,
who lives with her, would be available to help her. But, Cousminer said,
that doesn't excuse the condominium from its obligations under fair
housing laws that require reasonable accommodations to be made for the
The association has also expressed concerns
that the lobby doors would compromise security for other residents of the
building, which is in a complex next to Florida Atlantic University on
Northwest 20th Street. However, officials at a Pompano Beach company, who
have installed similar doors at other condominiums, said that isn't the
In a letter to association attorney Jeffrey
Gerow, an official from Access-Ability said the electronic doors could be
integrated into the condominium's existing door-locking system without
interfering with security or inconveniencing residents.
Cousminer said officials also had asked
that either the county or the agency agree to pay to have the doors
removed if Fontanez moves out. While Fontanez agreed to make sure the
doors are removed, neither the county nor the nonprofit agency can agree
to do so, the attorney said.
Cousminer said she also had asked the
association to pay Fontanez an undisclosed amount for the stress it had
caused her by dragging out her request. It objected to that as well, she
Now the association and the management
company face the possibility of being forced to pay far more. In the
lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Miami lawyer Matthew
Dietz said he would seek both compensatory and punitive damages that could
reach into the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars.
In the meantime, Fontanez sits and waits.
Born without limbs because her mother took the now severely restricted
drug thalidomide while she was pregnant with her, Fontanez long ago
learned to cope.
Her ex-boyfriend helps her as much as he
can. Friends and family stop by. A home health worker assists her for five
hours each day. She'd like more help, she says, but Medicaid won't pay for
Her goal right now, she says, is simple:
"No more jail."