DENVER — A scheduled Denver City Council debate is garnering attention after District 10 Councilman Chris Hinds, who relies on a wheelchair for mobility, was not able to gain access to the stage to participate.
The debate was held at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre. Hinds says when he arrived, he was told there was no ramp or lift to get him onto the stage.
“The first person that I talked to was the facilities director for the venue, and he said, 'I had no idea you were in a wheelchair,’ which is a red flag immediately,” Hinds said.
The incumbent says was already feeling conflicted about participating in the debate because it was happening at the same time as a city council meeting Monday night, and he didn’t want to be perceived as shirking his elected duties for the sake of campaigning.
However, because Hinds is participating in the Denver Fair Elections Fund and has accepted money for his campaign, he didn’t have an option but to participate.
“If I do not attend the debate, then I'm required to give back all of the Fair Elections Fund money, which is $125,000 for me. So that would basically end my viability as a candidate,” Hinds said.
The event organizers then told Hinds that in order to get onto the stage, their plan was to lift him up.
“Just get a few people together and lift me up, and I said, 'That's crazy.' The chair itself is 400 pounds, and I'm close to 200 pounds. So that's 600 pounds of weight,” he said.
Beyond that, he was worried that someone could drop him or damage his wheelchair in the process of trying to hoist him onto the stage.
The next idea was to have Hinds hoist himself up onto the stage and then to lift the wheelchair up separately.
A viewer in the audience snapped a photo as Hinds tried to hoist himself on stage as people attending the debate watched.
After the City Councilman hoisted himself on to the stage from his chair on the ground, the decision was made that instead, the debate would be moved to the floor in front of the stage and @DenverPerfect10 returns to his chair after the five-minute episode. L— 𝑽𝑰𝑵𝑪𝑬 (@VinnieChant) February 13, 2023
Wild start here. pic.twitter.com/IzuQkvfArC
“I felt like a circus monkey. I felt humiliated, and that's not okay,” he said.
Eventually, event organizers decided that the best idea was to move the debate onto the floor in front of the stage so that Hinds could participate.
In a statement, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre said it did not receive "requests for additional or enhanced accommodations" prior to the debate.
"We are deeply involved in plans to ensure full accessibility of CPRD Theatre facilities in the near future. Our stage is home to performers of all abilities," said Malik Robinson, executive director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. "We understand the stage limitations, and plan in advance necessary accommodations prior to events. We are working diligently on a long-term solution."
As unfortunate and embarrassing as the incident was, it is not the only time in recent weeks that something like this has happened to an elected official.
Last month, Rep. David Ortiz, D-Littleton, tweeted about not being able to attend an event at the Denver Press Club with the Latino Caucus because the building was not ADA accessible.
Couldn’t go to a function tonight because hosts of the event didn’t ensure the venue was accesible.— David Ortiz (@DavidDOrtizCO) January 13, 2023
Im my heart I know it wasn’t malicious. But.. lack of access is discriminatory. Not ensuring access when you know one of your attendees needs basic access is a bad look. #COLeg https://t.co/t2wAKeHy1c
“It happens all the time. I mean, ever since I decided to put my hat in the ring and run for office. I mean, there are two ways to get on the ballot: you can either caucus or do signatures, and every house has steps. So obviously, I went to the caucuses route,” Ortiz said.
Both Ortiz and Hinds have made history in their own right. Hinds is the first wheelchair-using member of the Denver City Council and Ortiz is the first wheelchair-using member of the state legislature.
During their time serving, there has been some progress. At the Colorado State Capitol, lifts and ramps were added to give Ortiz better access to the building. Last year, he was the first person in a wheelchair to preside over the committee of the whole after a lift was added to get him onto the dais.
“It's huge to see yourself represented in places of power. You feel more welcomed, you feel like you belong there. And that's the message I want to tout to people living with a disability,” Ortiz said.
Still, Ortiz knows there is still a long way to go, both within the state capitol and in the community as a whole for true equity in access.
Despite the fact that it’s been 33 years since the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, disability advocates say there’s still a long way to go.
“A great example of lack of enforcement of disability rights laws is Denver's absolute refusal to enforce snow shoveling ordinances, which has been a huge problem for all of us who use wheelchairs,” said Julie Reiskin, co-executive director of the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition. “ADA is a law, and laws have to be enforced. We don't have very many lawyers to enforce the ADA.”
Reislin says having people like Ortiz and Hinds in government positions, as well as someone in the governor’s office, has lead to more recognition of the hurdles this community still faces. However, she says many buildings still only focus on making themselves accessible for audience members and not participants.
“That's the whole American dream, right, that we all see ourselves as being able to rise to power, but the message continually to people with disabilities is except for you,” Reislin said.
This year, Ortiz is working on five bills dealing with accessibility to try to require more access.
One of the bills sets requirements for newly constructed housing to be more ADA accessible and aims to create a housing accommodation task force to look deeper into the issue. It also sets more requirements for renovated housing to be more ADA compliant.
A second bill focuses on offering more access to the outdoors, particularly in ski areas. It calls for the lifts, entrances, parking, bathrooms and other facilities to become more user friendly for users and aims to set up a task force to look for other areas where the state can make the outdoors more accessible.
A third bill would require health insurance providers to cover prosthetic devices for people under the age of 26 who want to participate in physical or recreational activities, like sports.
A fourth bill clarifies the law to set out standards for protections against discrimination of a person with disabilities. The bill states that a person with disabilities cannot be discriminated against or denied benefits, programs or activities, and the monetary damages they are entitled to if discrimination occurs.
The fifth bill adds more guardrails around government buildings to make them more accessible, requiring that within six years of the bill becoming law, things like auxiliary aids or video platforms must be made available.
It also stipulates that every chamber room where government activities take place must be made accessible. Ortiz started work on the bill well before the incident on Monday with Hinds.
“When I can get to every place, going out to eat, going shopping, when I can work in any job, regardless of my disability, that's true equity,” Ortiz said.
For both Hinds and Ortiz, while the state has made progress in the 33 years since the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, there is still a long way to go. They hope these recent examples of exclusion will serve as a lesson.
“Our democracy is stronger when we have representation of all the communities that we that we have here in our in our city,” Hinds said.