A disabled student's battle could aid others' struggles

By Scott W. Helman, Globe Staff Correspondent, 5/28/2002

NATICK - The obstacles Anjali Forber-Pratt would face at Natick High School were clear from the first day of her freshman year, when she rolled her wheelchair up to a staff member and asked how to get to a classroom. The directions led to a stairwell.

From that day on, Forber-Pratt, a paraplegic from an early bout with the spinal disease transverse myelitis, said she encountered a climate of insensitivity to the needs of the disabled. School buses blocked the concrete ramps, crumbling anyway from poor upkeep. Accessible bathrooms were scarce and hard to find.

Passageways were so narrow she'd skin her knuckles. A teacher complained in front of a class that her disability was an inconvenience.

At 17, even with arm muscles toned from years of road racing and skiing, she still needs seven minutes to travel a wheelchair-accessible, quarter-mile route through the high school. Classes often begin without her.

''It got to the point where I was beyond frustration,'' said Forber-Pratt, now a senior. ''I needed to do something else.''

Fed up with fruitless complaints and letters to school officials, Forber-Pratt filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school district in federal court in September 2000. As part of a settlement agreement reached in March, the district paid her $110,000 and agreed to correct a number of accessibility deficiencies identified at the school. Forber-Pratt and her family hope the district addresses the rest on its own accord.

Though Forber-Pratt, who is scheduled to graduate next month, will hardly get to enjoy the benefits of her long battle, she, along with advocates for the disabled, hope the settlement of the Natick lawsuit - the only such case in Massachusetts that area experts are aware of - will pay off for future generations of disabled students in Natick and beyond.

''This was a really important case and hopefully other municipalities will watch what happened here,'' said Myra Berloff, acting director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability. ''She should be very proud of herself and her family for having the stamina to be able to stand up and say this just isn't right.''

Jim Connolly, Natick's superintendent of schools, said the district has fixed what was required under the settlement. He said it is not uncommon for aging buildings to have code issues, and that a major renovation at the school, something school officials have sought, would allow for full accessibility.

Indeed, 12 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, advocates for the disabled say many schools and public buildings in Massachusetts, and throughout the country, are still failing to meet the needs of the disabled. Although the suit against Natick may be unique, advocates say, the issues it raised are not.

''It's still happening regularly,'' Berloff said. ''It becomes the student with the disability who is perceived to be the problem or the burden.''

Several Massachusetts communities have been sued on claims that their public facilities didn't comply with ADA regulations. But many complaints end up being mediated by the state Office on Disability, Berloff said.

Though a survey conducted by the state agency in 2000 showed marked progress in making schools accessible to the disabled, Tim Findelar, a senior attorney with the Boston-based Disability Law Center, said his office still handles many complaints.

''It still is a major problem at most school districts across the state,'' Findelar said.

Nationally, about half of the complaints to the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights have continued to stem from alleged violations of the ADA and its predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Metrowest Center for Independent Living, a Framingham-based advocacy group, filed a complaint about Natick High School with the US Department of Education on behalf of Forber-Pratt in 2000, prior to her filing the lawsuit. A resulting federal investigation concluded that the high school's programs and activities were, in their entirety, not accessible.

The district committed to making some changes, but not quickly or substantively enough to satisfy Forber-Pratt. A civil rights suit, she said, became her only recourse.

And now, after missing untold minutes of class time and lunch periods to travel the school's out-of-the-way routes, Forber-Pratt hopes the settlement will prompt Natick High School to address the needs of disabled students, teachers, and parents who face the same obstacles.

''It's not just for me,'' she said. ''That's really what I was trying to do: to make them aware, to think twice.''

Barry Parker, principal of Natick High School, said Forber-Pratt has succeeded in raising awareness, and he said several physical changes have been made in the building apart from the lawsuit.

''I think the building, separate from the suit, is quite a bit different than it was before,'' he said.

Sensitivity to people with disabilities, Parker said, is the norm among Natick teachers and students.

Forber-Pratt's case against the district, advocates believe, will also effect change elsewhere.

''It will get people to pay attention more and not lose sight of certain things,'' said Paul Spooner, executive director of the Metrowest Center for Independent Living.

Linda Royster, executive director of the Disability Rights Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, said it's up to fighters like Forber-Pratt to forge a new era of awareness.

''It makes another teenager who's experienced another kind of discrimination stand up and say, `If she can do it, I can do it,''' Royster said.

Forber-Pratt may be graduating, but that won't stop her efforts to make sure that Natick High School keeps full accessibility among its top priorities.

''We want them to continue thinking about it,'' said her mother, Rosalind Forber.

''Not just thinking about it,'' Forber-Pratt interjected, ''implementing it.''
Younger acquaintances with disabilities headed for the high school, Forber-Pratt hopes, will be the benefactors of her legacy. As for Forber-Pratt, she's headed to the disabled-friendly University of Illinois, where, she and her mother say with excitement, campus buses are eager to stop and lay down their lifts for a girl in a wheelchair.