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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly nine years ago, Dereck Scott took a fall. The right side of his body went limp, and he and his baby daughter, whom he had been carrying, tumbled to the floor.
The baby was unhurt. But Scott’s pain had just begun.
He’s been trying to get back on his feet ever since.
Longtime readers of this column may remember Scott, the Albuquerque father whose fall in early 2011 was not a clumsy stumble, but the beginning signs of multiple sclerosis, a degenerative, often debilitating neurological condition that now requires him to rely on a wheelchair to get around, and on his wife, Aisle, for nearly everything else.
Weeks before Christmas that year, his story took a Grinchy turn when his landlord evicted the couple and their three young children over Scott’s request to make reasonable modifications for his disability to their Taylor Ranch rental – all paid for by Scott and legal under the Fair Housing Act.
Scott’s case went to federal court – and he won.
Now, Scott is back in federal court, this time alleging that the Central New Mexico Community College discriminated, harassed and retaliated against him because of his disability while he was a student at the college’s STEMulus Cyber Academy from fall semester 2017 to this year.
Scott’s lawsuit alleges that CNM, the CNM Disability Resource Center and the CNM Governing Board violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Mexico Human Rights Act and are in breach of contract for failing to provide reasonable accommodations, such as providing a note taker and more time to take tests; failing to adequately respond to or investigate his concerns and complaints, provide travel accommodations to attend a robotics conference, reimburse expenses and fees; and denying him the use of his service dog, Marybell.
“It all began with her,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, which was moved from the 2nd Judicial District to federal court Oct. 18, Scott was waiting in the lobby for class to start with Marybell when the Australian cattle dog barked – as she is trained to do when she senses trouble – prompting an instructor to yell expletives at Scott and remark that he didn’t know why “those people” need dogs.
A supervisor then ordered Scott to leave with his dog.
Scott said he complained to the Disability Resource Center and the dean of students, who promised to meet with Scott but never did.
The lawsuit further alleges that after that incident, he was harassed by the supervisor and retaliated against by instructors, who began refusing Scott’s requests for assistance or providing him with accommodations, sometimes yelling at him when Scott reminded them of the required accommodations.
The lawsuit details Scott’s repeated efforts to seek resolution. It says that he eventually exhausted all remedies, including filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Civil Rights, as well as with CNM president Kathie Winograd.
As a result of his treatment, the lawsuit claims, Scott lost the Kellogg Grant that had covered his costs at CNM, received reduced or failing grades, was removed from the program and did not timely receive the certification he needed to pursue a career in cybersecurity.
“I didn’t think I would ever run into something like this again,” Scott said. “It really shook me. I keep thinking, can this really be happening to me? And if it is, is it happening to others?”
A spokesman for CNM said the college does not comment on pending litigation. CNM has yet to file a response to Scott’s complaint in court.
After that eviction in 2011, the community rallied around Scott, donating money, moving assistance, food, furniture and even a new handicap-accessible place for the Scotts to live.
They’ve since moved back to Taylor Ranch, about a mile from the old house from which they were evicted.
Scott is 40 now, the baby is 9, the twins 14. They get by, if barely, on his disability check and wife Aisle’s teaching aide job.
To pay for his attorney, Amelia Nelson, he’s set up a GoFundMe account at www.gofundme.com/f/cnm-discriminated-me.
He struggles with his health and to get back on his feet, at least financially. Despite filing dozens of applications, he has yet to find a job.
“My hope was that education would help me find a job so I can do something for my family and take the stress off my wife,” he said. “I want to get off the government dole, get back on my own. But I really believe that society forgets handicapped people, generally. People see us differently, as an annoyance.”
The lawsuit is not only an effort to get the fairness and footing he believes he is entitled to, but also a stand for others with a disability who are treated unfairly.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.