Maryland Teen Inspired to Advocate for Students With Disabilities After Fire Drill

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A Maryland teenager became an advocate for students with disabilities after a fire drill a year-and-a-half ago.

Wootton High School senior Catherine Contreras’ said some students with disabilities were scared and had trouble evacuating and getting to a meetup point outside.

“When I saw it firsthand, it was really eye opening and it made me really realize that this is a big issue and that this is not OK,” she said.

She’s become an advocate for students with disabilities demanding the school system bring its buildings into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. She has testified at Montgomery County Council and school board meetings, pleading with them to address safety and accessibility issues.

The school system said in a statement that it is working on as many ADA improvement projects as possible within funding constraints and that a planned renovation at Wootton is designed to address many of the ADA issues advocates have identified.

Contreras’ friend and classmate Danny has Down syndrome.

“He is, I call him my sunshine,” Contreras said. “He is a bright human being.”

Danny’s dad is impressed with Contreras’ passion and persistence.

“They shouldn’t need much prodding,” John Fitzgerald said. “After all, it’s a federal law and it’s important, and it’s a good thing. Why not do it? I know it’s expensive. Let’s make it a priority.”

Contreras plans to continue her fight for kids like Danny beyond graduation.

“I hope to make a career out of this,” she said. “I hope to keep fighting for this for the rest of my life until this gets fixed, because this is truly a big passion of mine and something that’s long overdue.”

Contreras will provide public testimony to the Montgomery County School Board Tuesday — her last chance to pitch her cause as a high school student.

Montgomery County Public Schools statement:

“MCPS took the proactive step several years ago to bring in an outside contractor to assess all 208 MCPS school facilities for ADA compliance and to identify aspects that need remediation. The district published all of this information online so that communities have full information about the status of ADA features in their schools.

“This assessment yielded a wide range of information, everything from major structural improvements that would require major construction projects to resolve, to overgrown branches that impede pathways and access routes.  We are working through as many projects as feasible within funding constraints.  Some ADA issues, including many at Wootton High School, will require a major renovation to fully address.  Wootton HS is scheduled for major renovation in the next couple of years, contingent on funding, and this project will be designed to address many of the ADA issues that advocates have identified.

“Many public buildings in our county, state and nation are “out of compliance” with the ADA in one or more features due in part to age, but also due to the broad scope of ADA regulations, the frequent updates to the legislation, and changing building codes.  MCPS works continually with our school communities to address specific needs of staff, students, and families and to ensure access to the programs and services within our schools.  Accommodations are made to ensure student safety and access.”

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