'Stair-trac' could be music to disabled student's ears Device for stairs key to settlement.

July 30, 1991|By Edward L. Heard Jr. | Edward L. Heard Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

Randi Wixom is a little more optimistic she will be playing the flute along with her friends in band class as a senior at Catonsville High School this fall. Soon, she may know just how convenient that will be.

Wixom, 16, who has an undiagnosed neurological disease that keeps her from walking, is the focus of negotiations between attorneys from the National Disability Action Center and the Baltimore County Board of Education.

Yesterday, the attorneys held a conference telephone call with U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis to discuss alternatives to help Wixom move throughout areas in the school now inaccessible because of her condition. Both sides are looking to a "stair-trac" apparatus as a key to settling the issue and getting the teen-ager back into the music room. A final decision could be made by Aug. 15.

Attorneys from the center filed suit against the county this year because Wixom was prohibited from attending a music class due to her difficulty in maneuvering down three flights of stairs to get to rehearsals. The suit also seeks $100,000 in compensatory damages.

Garbis ordered the conference session last Tuesday after Wixom's lawyers and at torneys for the county school system could not agree on provisions that could be provided to make Wixom's stay at Catonsville more convenient.

Brought up in last week's hearing were three options the attorneys were told to consider: an inclined wheelchair lift; a contract service to transport Wixom around the school; and the mobile Garaventa Stair-Trac, which would lift the wheelchair and carry Randi up and down steps.

On Friday, school board members and attorneys held a demonstration of the stair-trac option. The device, which costs about $7,000, was donated for a year by the Society of Underprivileged and Handicapped Children of Maryland, Inc., a charitable organization that helps provide such items where needed.

The general manager of a company that installs equipment for the handicapped testified in court last week that the stair-trac, which has tank-like treads, would attach to the base of a wheelchair, allowing the teen-ager to go up and down stairs.

While the attorneys did not reach a final agreement yesterday on what alternative to use, they said the stair-trac looks promising because it's free and safe.

"We're hopeful this will be the resolution," said Benjamin W. Hahn, an attorney for the county. "We've made considerable progress and we're optimistic that something will work out."

Joseph Russo, an attorney for Wixom, said the stair-trac seemed as if it would satisfy Wixom's needs. "We view this as a step in the right direction," Russo said.

Garbis then instructed both sides to continue negotiations. He scheduled another phone conference for Aug. 15, when attorneys say they should come to a final decision.

Wixom said she is happy that some provision will be made for her to attend her band class.

"I think it will work out," Wixom said. "It may not be what I wanted, but at least I'll be able to get to band." She said she preferred the inclined wheelchair lift, which she would be able to operate without assistance, because it provided her with more independence.

Last year, due to her worsening condition, Wixom was forced to abandon her crutches, which had enabled her to travel more freely, for a wheelchair.

She would get out of the wheelchair and crawl down the stairs to the band room. Saying he feared for her safety, the principal stopped the practice.

The school board said it wanted to help Wixom, but said budgetary limitations and other needs in the county schools prohibited what could be done. No other room in the school would be suitable as a band room, they said.

"We're balancing everyone's interests," Leslie R. Stellman, attorney for the county, said.

With the donation of the stair-trac, an alternative consistent with both party's needs, lawyers say their negotiations have been made easier.

However, the school board lawyers said they have to take into consideration the future costs of repair for the manually operated device and the task of training people to operate it.

The two other alternatives -- the inclined wheelchair lift and the contracted assistance -- are not as cost-effective. The lift, a permanent stationary structure, would be vulnerable to tampering, but the mobile stair-trac could be stored and locked up in the school building, center lawyers for the school board said.

"Our main goal is to come up with a procedure that everybody can live with," Hahn said.

But Russo said that even when negotiations over the alternatives end, the $100,000 damages in the suit will remain an issue.

Stellman, however, said cases involving access for the disabled are protected from monetary law suits under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. But he said he will wait for the court's ruling.

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