Disabled woman's home feels like jail

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post


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 says.

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 says.

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 tiny foot.

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 request.

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 disabled.

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 case.

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 said.

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 it.

Her goal right now, she says, is simple: "No more jail."