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Disabled ex-firefighter says civil rights violated by hospital’s refusal to treat him without mask

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A retired firefighter with reactive airway disease said his civil rights were violated by a local hospital that denied him an appointment over his refusal to wear a face mask, despite having access to medical records documenting his physical disabilities.

John Wetter, 44, sustained permanent lung and vocal cord damage in Dec. 2012 during a career-ending work incident.

“We ended up on a hazmat spill of 300 gallons of chlorine and I got exposed to that,” the Westfield resident told News 8. “I have reactive airway, chronic bronchitis [and] pneumonia a couple times a year.”

Fumes from cleaning products and vehicle exhaust trigger symptoms that “feel like somebody’s just choking you from the inside,” he said.

Covering his nose and mouth with a physical barrier – such as a cloth mask – could also exacerbate his pulmonary conditions, he added.

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On Thursday, Wetter went to the emergency room after hurting his elbow while throwing a baseball with his son. He “heard a pop” and immediately lost feeling and function in his hand, he said.

He made an appointment to see his longtime orthopedist at a Community Health Network hospital the following day; his pulmonologist is affiliated with the same hospital network.

A triage nurse initially indicated he would be exempt from the hospital’s COVID-19 mask requirement, according to Wetter.

However, a second nurse called him Friday afternoon when he was en route to the appointment.

“She told me that if I couldn’t wear a mask, then I couldn’t be seen,” Wetter said. “The conversation went on and I explained to her that that was a violation of the ADA.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodations to ensure people with disabilities have equal opportunity to take advantage of goods and services offered by covered entities, including hospitals and medical offices.

Kris Kirschner, a spokesperson for Community Health Network, said the health care system follows face covering guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and offers patients unable or unwilling to wear masks the option of virtual appointments.

Wetter was not offered the option of a virtual appointment by either nurse he spoke with, he told News 8.

“It’s disheartening,” he said. “They know it’s not a made-up thing where I just don’t want to wear a mask.”

People who make false disability claims to skirt mask requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic are creating new hurdles for Americans with legitimate exemptions, according to disability rights advocates.

Videos of adults throwing public tantrums over mask mandates at supermarkets and other businesses have become a viral phenomenon as states attempt to control or stave off new surges of COVID-19 infections.

Some people have taken to flashing home-printed mask exemption cards designed by the “Freedom to Breathe Agency,” a private organization founded in California by Lenka Koloma.

“Wearing a face mask poses a mental and/or physical risk to me,” the card template reads. (Photo: Lenka Koloma)

“Thousands and thousands” of people downloaded and printed the cards from Koloma’s website and Facebook page, she said in a phone interview with News 8.

The Department of Justice issued warnings urging the public “not to rely on information” listed on the “fraudulent” cards posted on social media.

“These postings were not issued by the Department and are not endorsed by the Department,” according to an alert on ADA.gov.

Christopher Sweet, an outreach specialist at the Northeast ADA Center, said the cards would not guarantee any exemptions or protections.

“There’s no validity to them,” he said. “They’re not government-issued. They really carry no weight. No business owner is required to pay them any kind of mind.”

Widespread misuse of the cards and growing awareness of false disability claims could lead to increased stigma around conditions that prevent people from safely wearing masks.

Wetter said the situation was reminiscent of travelers abusing “emotional support animal” privileges and sparking unfair backlash against registered service animals.

“That’s why I’m coming out with my story,” he said. “Hopefully somebody else doesn’t have to go through this.”

The Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center assured John Wetter he would not have to wear a face covering to be seen by one of their physicians, he said. (WISH Photo/Julia Deng)

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