By Kayla Padilla | @KaylaPadilla__ | Heron contributor
On the evening that I met Christine Ahuyon at John F. Kennedy Park, Tejano music from nearby park goers played in the background. Ahuyon, smiling, had shaken my hand and led me to the area with tables. It was still bright out when we sat down to talk.
I had connected with Ahuyon after she accidentally emailed the Heron instead of the builder of the Cattleman Square Lofts. She was asking about a “one bedroom handicap unit with a walk in shower,” in hopes of moving from an apartment complex on the southwest side into a unit with more space. No luck as the lofts were still in the conceptual stage.
Ahuyon’s case is hardly unique when it comes to difficulties finding apartments compliant with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disabled tenants are typically advised to seek out a sponsor to help make changes to their current space, and though 5 percent of an apartment complex has to abide by ADA standards, those apartments are not required to go to disabled-only tenants, according to Texas code. Landlords cannot legally ask their tenants to identify their disability.
Though we had a single phone conversation prior to meeting in person, an image of her was already forming in my head. She was 50, loved to make jokes, and also had nearly 26,000 followers on TikTok (@chrislaloca2323), a fact she revealed at the end of our conversation. Some years back, she was set to become a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent, before a series of life-changing events derailed her plans.
Our interview started with Ahuyon telling me a story that happened to her a few days prior, one that she had yet to tell her TikTok followers.
She was picking up her cousin to take her to a doctor’s appointment and had to get an item from the garage. She had forgotten that her cousin had a new dog and stepped on him. She lost her balance and fell on a glass coffee table.
“Here comes her boyfriend from upstairs, to the dog he says ‘Are you OK?’ She’s there with the dog, too,” Ahuyon said. “It’s like ‘Leave me on the floor. Don’t worry about me!'”
Her sense of humor imbues her TikTok page. She posts mostly funny stories and enjoys engaging with her followers, which grew rapidly in the last year. Across her page, she tells countless stories of everyday occurrences, all with a comedic twist. In one video, Ahuyon shows herself in hair rollers after the city received a notification to conserve energy.
“This is my way of saving energy. I wanted to curl my hair but instead, I put some sexy rollers. I’m about to go out and do some errands in my sexy rollers,” Ahuyon says with a huge grin.
Her videos are in Spanglish, and it seems to work perfectly with her audience. They comment with laughing emojis, share their thoughts on the video, or wish her a good morning. It seems that Ahuyon has cultivated a friendly environment, and has turned her daily life encounters into digestible two-minute clips.
But between the laughs and good-natured conversation, we always found our way back to the reason we were there.
Though her TikTok page is made up of humorous videos and positive interactions with followers, there’s another side to Ahuyon that I was trying to get more clarity on.
Ahuyon, born and raised in San Antonio, is chronically disabled and has struggled to find accessible housing in the city. She has used a Section 8 voucher from Opportunity Home San Antonio, formerly the San Antonio Housing Authority, for eight years. The federal government housing voucher assists low-income families, the elderly, and disabled people.
The last time we spoke, Ayuhon revealed that she has lived in the same apartment for the past six years on the lower West Side, near John F. Kennedy High School, a fact due in major part to the lack of housing in San Antonio that is both affordable and accessible to disabled people.
“The reason I haven’t moved is because the unit that I’m in is a handicapped apartment. So, in San Antonio, there’s like a zero to none chance you will find an apartment that has handicapped (amenities) available,” she said.
In her current apartment, Ahuyon has a stand-up shower with a folding chair attached to the wall. Her kitchen and bathroom cabinets are closer to the floor, making it wheelchair accessible. There’s no carpet on her floor, which means that it is also wheelchair-friendly. Her door has two peepholes, one on top, and another that is wheelchair high. And she has metal bars in her restroom that allow her to get a grip when she uses the restroom.
“I don’t use a wheelchair anymore, but I still have one of those business chairs that roll around. So when I have those days, like when I cannot walk to the restroom, I sit myself there and roll myself to the restroom,” said Ahuyon.
The current standard rent for Ahuyon’s one-bedroom is $653.00. With a $267.00 voucher from Opportunity Home SA, she is able to cover the rest of the rent with her social security benefits. The amount she has received from Opportunity Home SA, she said, has changed depending on the market value of her apartment complex.
“So based on whatever the market value is that the apartment complex has, then a percentage is paid by SAHA,” she said.
Because of her disabilities, she hasn’t worked since 2009. For Ahuyon, and so many others, working a job is not a viable option. In her case, it began with a series of medical diagnoses that started in 2009 and changed the trajectory of her career path and life.
Ahuyon was in her late 30’s when she started experiencing excruciating pain in her foot in 2009. At birth, she was born with clubbed feet, but this foot pain was new.
It didn’t come from an accident, and it had never been an issue before. For Ahuyon, this would mark a turning point in her life.
“All of a sudden I couldn’t walk. I was limping and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Somehow I ruptured the tendons on my foot,” said Ahuyon. “And that’s when they put me in the cast to see if they could repair themselves, but they couldn’t.”
With her tendons refusing to heal, Ahuyon had a tendon transplant and fusion in 2010. After the surgery, she was in a wheelchair for four years. She regained her ability to walk after countless hours of aerobic water classes, physical therapy and pain management. To this day, she has no idea what led to her ruptured tendons.
“I think it was like on a Friday or Saturday, and I was like what’s wrong with me? By Monday, I couldn’t walk anymore,” said Ahuyon.
Soon after her surgery, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia that she believes started in childhood, but was attributed to “growing pains.” In addition to this, Ahuyon has trigeminal neuralgia, diabetes, vertigo, scoliosis, and tinnitus, and she experiences chronic pain.
Though Ahuyon said some may think she’s living the “ideal life” because she’s not working, she tells a much more complex story about what her days are like. Some good, some not so good.
After she became immobile in 2009, she was prescribed medication for pain management. As the years have passed, she said, the number of pills have increased. Currently, she takes 14 prescription medications, a few other over-the-counter medications, vitamins like B12 and Vitamin D, and an additional medication that helps with an upset stomach caused by ingesting so many medications.
She starts her day off by taking nine pills, most of them for pain management. Some days, she is able to move around more, while other days, she stays in bed to recover.
“If I don’t overexert myself or do something, I’ll be okay. But if not, sometimes I’ll be in bed for two or three days. I cannot move.”
Ahuyon takes her medication before she gets out of bed so that they can sink in. She also needs to be notified of an outing or activity ahead of time by friends and family, so as to prepare the days before.
“I tell my friends, ‘You need to let me know if we’re going to do something because I gotta take my medicine and get myself moving.'”
Ahuyon said that sometimes her pain gets so bad she drives herself to the hospital—something she keeps from her friends and family.
“I’ve had times where I’m really, really sick and I just go straight to the hospital. I don’t tell anybody because I don’t want nobody to worry, you know?”
For Ahuyon, a typical day includes spending time with friends and family, making TikTok videos about humorous events in her life, recovering at home after stepping out, and trying to manage her pain throughout the day.
’Not an accessible one’
Melanie Cawthon is the founder and Executive Director of disABILITY SA, a nonprofit that seeks to build a community by providing resources and programs to disabled people in the San Antonio area.
Cawthon explained that for an apartment complex, 5 percent of the units have to be built to ADA standards. But because housing units can’t legally ask their tenant to identify their disability, an unfilled affordable housing unit could be leased to anyone.
“So then somebody with a disability comes along, and they may have 10 apartments that are vacant, but not an accessible one,” Cawthon said. “So it doesn’t matter that there’s apartments available. There’s not one that this person can move into.”
Cawthon also listed a few ways that apartment complexes could be more accessible, such as creating a parking space closer to the apartment, allowing a tenant to transfer to the ground floor, and adjusting the rent due date to align with the person’s receiving of their financial assistance.
Cawthon also recommends that tenants call the city’s Disability Access Advisory Committee at 210-207-7135 if their accommodations are not being made by the landlord.
“The city doesn’t regulate the accessibility of private business, but they can offer educational materials which may be helpful,” Cawthon said.
’I took it so hard’
Though Ahuyon’s chronic pain started well before her surgery in 2009, she identifies her surgery as the turning point in her life. The transition from working to being unable to walk was tough, she said.
“I took it so hard. It was really bad because I was crying and crying so bad.”
Right before she got sick, Ahuyon was set to become a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent. Prior to that, she also worked for the IRS, Bexar County, Center for Healthcare Services, and Security Service Federal Credit Union.
“I was already in the Homeland Security pool for the next opening at TSA, but then I got sick,” she said. “It hurts because I tell people ‘Oh my god, that was gonna be my next job, you know?’ ”
Though she is unable to work, Ahuyon spends a majority of her time with her goddaughters and friends.
When I asked Ahuyon what her friends and family would say if they read this story, she said they would be shocked.
“I’m sure they’re gonna be like, ‘How? When?’ I always make jokes and make people laugh so they think that everything is fine.”
As sun was setting, and our interview came to an end, Ahuyon reflected on the good aspects of her life.
“I did a lot of things in my life already. I did a lot of traveling. I studied abroad (in Turkey). I did things that people don’t think I did.”
As she continues her search for a more spacious, affordable and accessible place to live, Ahuyon has a message for people who treat the elderly and disabled differently in their search for accessible housing.
“I would say people need to be compassionate,” she said. “Think about it, would you want your grandparent to be treated like this? Would you want your grandparents to be cheated by people?”
Ahuyon added that society lacks a sense of mutual respect and looking out for one another, especially for the disabled and elderly. She said that she’s seen people be ostracized for their disabilities and illnesses before.
As we walked back to our cars, the people that had been playing loud music and barbecuing at a different table signaled at us.
“I can make you a plate if you want,” said one of the men.
Though a small gesture, maybe this was the kind of looking out that Ahuyon was referencing earlier—the kind where people have an understanding that, at the very minimum, everyone deserves respect.
I left that interview in agreement with Ahuyon: Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, and you don’t have to know the full story to decide if someone is worthy of basic human decency. But this is Christine Ahuyon’s story—one that inspired me to look around more and see where I can help.
Kayla Padilla is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She served as the editor-in-chief of Trinity University’s campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, in 2020 and 2021. Follow her on Twitter at @KaylaPadilla_
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