Lawyers pitch in to help a woman in need
By Jan Pudlow
Imagine loving to cook, but not being able to reach the dials on your stove.
Imagine getting bruised and battered hoisting your body under the falling water of your bathroom shower.
Imagine never feeling the breeze from your apartment balcony because you can't get over the two-inch raised threshold.
Imagine your arms aching just to get from one room to another, maneuvering over thick shag carpeting that feels like struggling slow motion through deep sand.
That was the hellish routine for 40-year-old Felicia Omasta, who uses a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down ever since her mother accidentally shot her when she was a toddler.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Omasta was grateful to move from subsidized housing to this two-bedroom condo in North Miami her father-in-law gave her and her husband and 6-year-old daughter. But being disabled in a place filled with barriers made her feel like a prisoner in her own home.
Omasta, on federal disability, and her husband, a retired welder, could not afford to make the necessary renovations.
"Someone should help this woman," was the first thought that sprang to mind when Coral Gables attorney Matthew Dietz read about Omasta's plight in the Miami Herald's Christmas 2001 Wish List a year ago. She was asking for bathroom renovations.
Dietz — a civil litigation attorney emphasizing disability discrimination law and other civil rights violations, chair-elect of the Bar's Public Interest Law Section, and past chair of the Disability Law Committee — knew just what Omasta needed in the way of widened doorways and bathroom grab bars and accessible appliances. But unlike a cruise ship or a restaurant or any number of public places, he couldn't take anyone to court to persuade the owners to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For a split second, he felt helpless. Then he thought, "I can do this."
And he didn't limit his vision of home improvements to just redoing her bathroom. Dietz was on a mission to make her whole apartment accessible.
When he was turned down for help from corporate home-improvement stores and Habitat for Humanity, Dietz charged forward to get the job done himself, donning a hard hat and wielding a carpet cutter to change Omasta's world.
With a cadre of friends — including lawyers Jennifer Ross Schlussler, David Marko, Miguel de la O, Gregory Schwartz, and Matthew Slingbaum — help from empathetic clients; $10,000 from Access Now, the disabled advocacy group run by PILS members Phyllis and Edward Resnick; and donated services from architect Richard Londono the sawdust began flying December 12 at Omasta's Buckley Towers condo.
By New Year's Day, the new stove had been installed, the doorways widened, the bathroom ripped apart and equipped with a roll-in shower, the walls reinforced to support grab bars. The shag carpeting was torn up and is being replaced with industrial-grade tile.
Out came the drills and saws to remove that two-inch barrier between her living room and balcony.
Dietz was there to witness the moment Omasta finally wheeled herself outside.
"We had a big celebration to see her go out onto her balcony for the first time," Dietz said. "We were cheering and clapping, and everyone surrounded Felicia as she smiled broadly as she and her daughter came out onto that balcony. She was extremely delighted. You can't imagine living in an apartment and not being able to use it, to be able to look over at something that is yours and not be able to get to it. It was an incredible hindrance to being able to be a productive person."
As Omasta said: "It's been hard to feel like a normal human being when I can't even get around. It takes away your dignity."
Now, she said with a grin, "I feel like a kid at Christmas time," and she told of her plans to cook a celebration dinner of lasagna and homemade bread, and teach her daughter how to bake chocolate chip cookies.
By the end of January, all of the work should be completed, Dietz said, and he and his volunteer crew plan to have a painting party to put the bright finishing touches on Omasta's walls.
The lawyer who made it all happen is glowing.
"This was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done since I've become a lawyer," said Dietz, who said he is inspired to start a law clinic to advise disabled clients at the South Florida Center for Independent Living on their rights in education, housing, accommodations, and employment, and where to find help.
"One of the things I've learned from doing disability law is to focus on the clients' abilities, the things they can do. When you free somebody up and take away barriers, it gives a person more time to focus on their abilities. It provides them with a life. The energy Felicia spent every day just trying to get around her apartment and doing things we take for granted, she can now spend time with her daughter and get outside," Dietz said.
"It made me feel glad that I could do something to help her other than what I do on the day-to-day—other than litigating, bringing complaints, and doing my legal work. It made me feel good using my expertise in going beyond what my practice is.
"I'm just sorry I didn't do it sooner. I wish I could have had it done last January. Now that I see that it is going through, I am so happy for her. I hope that this makes such a change in her life, and I know it will. It facilitates independence. It sets her free."