THANKS TO U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, 9-year-old Freddy Ramirez's 1 1/2-year ordeal may be over soon. Until Freddy's lawyer sued the public school system, the wheelchair-bound youngster with cerebral palsy frequently was forced to use the school's toilet in a degrading manner. He had to lower himself to the floor and crawl across the bathroom floor to the commode.
The U.S. Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that schools with students in wheelchairs have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and hallway doors. But Freddy is enrolled in the District's long-troubled special-education program, where, in the past, observance of the law and justice for disabled children have taken a back seat to official neglect.
At River Terrace Elementary School in Northeast Washington, because he couldn't maneuver his wheelchair over the bump in the restroom doorway, Freddy had to crawl for 18 months. His principal knew. So did some of the school system's big shots downtown. Asked why a child had to crawl to the bathroom for such a long time before renovations began, Principal Sylvia Patrick pointed a finger at the bureaucracy. "That is a question you may have to refer to facilities. Much of the work requires bids, and it goes through that process. As to why it has taken so long, I cannot answer at this time," she said.
Finding itself answerable to a higher judicial power, the system finally got cracking. Even so, the judge ruled last week that the city had fallen short on fixing the bathrooms at Freddy's school. That's why he lowered the boom and required officials to make it possible for Freddy to get his wheelchair through the door by early November.
Anne Gay, special-education program director, says the judge got it wrong; the bathroom now complies with the law. Judge Hogan, who has a history of being more right than wrong in judging the District, wants evidence presented in court to show that the bathrooms conform to ADA standards. A facilities expert brought in by the school system also concluded that the facilities are not yet ADA-compliant. Given the special-education program's poor track record, the court's demand for proof is warranted. When it comes to the school system, the law and a tough judge are all that Freddy Ramirez has on his side.