“Big Mistake. Big. Huge.”

I bought my dream house when I was 36 years old. It was mid-century modern (Frank Lloyd inspired), built in the early 60’s, had a flat roof, big beams on the ceiling and windows throughout the house overlooking the Snake River. Two short years after buying it, the dream was over. The economy had taken a turn and so had my relationship with Phoenix’s father. Luckily, we were able to find a buyer and didn’t have to walk away or even short sell it as many people are having to do. Phoenix and I relocated to Arizona where I had lived for 13 years before my relationship started with his dad. Yes, it was tough going from my 2000 square foot dream home to an 850 square foot two bedroom apartment, but I can honestly say I had joy in my heart when I signed the lease. I felt like I was back home in Arizona, my son was with me and I had a job. Happiness.

The apartments were built in the early 90’s and had two floors. When I was younger, I never wanted to live on the ground floor. It didn’t feel safe. Now, I didn’t have a choice – Phoenix was 2 1/2, had special equipment, and stairs were simply not an option in our household. The manager was great when I signed the lease. I explained my situation and said I needed a first floor unit with parking very close by because I would be carrying Phoenix from the car to our home and then would likely be needing to return to the car to get the rest of my stuff, groceries, etc. There was a different parking spot assigned to that particular apartment number but the leasing agent reassigned a covered spot close by to the apartment and wrote it right into the lease.

Other than the neighbors upstairs stomping around, the apartment was a pretty nice place. Phoenix and I settled in and he attended the early learning center at United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona, where he also received all of his therapies and in the morning, he was bussed back and forth to Desert Winds Elementary for Development Preschool where he received more therapy courtesy of the school district. The apartment was pretty far from my work (about a 45 minute commute), but we needed to live close to UCP, simply because of all of the resources they had at their Deer Valley campus.

We had been living there for about 3 months when I came home one day to find someone parked in our spot. The leasing agent had given me the number of the towing company to call if this happened so I called it and stirred up a bit of drama in doing so. Turns out, ownership had changed hands and a new tenant had moved into an apartment that was “connected” to my parking spot, the one that they had reassigned to me at the time I had moved in. I went into the leasing office and explained my situation, that I have a disabled son and why the special arrangements had been made for me. They told me I would have to speak to the manager. When I spoke to the manager, she told me to park in a handicapped parking space, which was uncovered. At the time, I had not yet registered my car in Arizona and did not have a disability placard or plate so I felt like an ass parking there. Yes, the spot was close to my apartment BUT I had to walk through gravel to get to my apartment, or walk all the way around the building to access my unit via the sidewalk. It wasn’t right. No matter how I argued my point, the new management was not listening and refused to give me my parking spot back.

As I write this I think about Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman where the snooty salesperson refuses to help her and she later returns after having spent craploads of money in another snooty store. She looks at the snob and says, “Big Mistake. Big. Huge.” Blankity Blank Apartments did not know who they were dealing with.

I started looking at other options and found a house for rent in the neighborhood. It was shockingly affordable, had tile throughout and was three doors down from Phoenix’s elementary school. It was one of those times in my life (and I’ve had many since having my little angel in my life) that I felt VERY blessed and VERY taken care of. That house was simply too perfect for us at the time and God handed it to me on a silver platter. I knew I was going to potentially suffer some serious consequences by breaking the lease with the apartments…but I started thinking about how they had literally broken the contract by giving away my contractually assigned parking spot and I wrote a letter explaining the entire situation and giving them notice that I was vacating the premises.

About a month later, I received my final accounting in the mail. They claimed I owed them $4,000. I probably would have left them alone if they would have left me alone. But they didn’t. So I contacted the Arizona Attorney General’s office and filed a claim of discrimination against them. They had been put on notice verbally and in writing of the special accommodations that my son required. The prior owner had made special accommodations for us with the reassigned parking spot and the new owners had taken it away. It was not SAFE for me to walk through the gravel carrying my son from the handicapped spot to our apartment. At the end of the initial investigation stage, the attorneys for the apartment complex offered to settle the case by removing their claim against me for the $4,000. That’s nice…but I thought it might be kind of nice for them to chip in for my moving costs. They paid me $500. Big Mistake. Big. Huge. (Okay, so not exactly HUGE, but an “I told you so” nonetheless).

I have a new mindset as the mother of a child with special needs. Before he came into my life, I didn’t need any special accommodations and I am not a member of a protected class. But I have learned to keep my eyes and ears open, watching and listening, knowing our rights. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a paralegal 😉

We have made many strides as a country to include and accommodate individuals with disabilities but we still have a long way to go. Do your part – know your rights. And don’t be afraid to fight when you or your loved one are victimized.