Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds couldn’t maneuver his wheelchair onto the stage at the Cleo Parker Robinson dance school Monday afternoon. The venue didn’t have a ramp for him.
But if Hinds didn’t participate in the debate for the city’s District 10 council seat, he said he’d have to forfeit about $125,000 in campaign financing from Denver’s Fair Elections Fund.
“It was a choice between my campaign’s viability or my dignity,” Hinds told The Denver Post.
So the councilman said he had to climb out of his wheelchair and crawl onto the stage in front of the debate crowd of several dozen people. The event itself had to be delayed during the process.
Ultimately, event organizers could not lift Hinds’s electric wheelchair onto the platform and the group held the debate on the floor in front of the stage.
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance school served as both the sponsor and venue for the debate, which was facilitated by the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
The ordeal was not just “humiliating,” Hinds said, but alarming. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires governments to provide equal access to public facilities for people with disabilities, is more than 30 years old.
“It’s kind of hard really to say that this is excusable at this point,” Hinds said. “I really hope that this is a teachable moment of why it’s important to have a government that’s representative of all the people, and why it’s important to have disability representation on Council.”
Patricia Smith, a spokesperson for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, said the venue didn’t receive “requests for additional or enhanced accommodations” ahead of the event.
Hinds shouldn’t have had to request any advanced accommodation, said Mike Oxford, interim director for Atlantis Community, Inc., an accessibility nonprofit in Denver. Because the debate was a public function, the event must comply with state and federal accessibility standards regardless of whether someone asks.
The oversight qualifies as an insult, Oxford said, and a throwback to the “bad old days” before ADA was enacted into federal law.
“That’s really bad, I have to say, and very disappointing,” Oxford said.
Hinds, a prominent advocate for accessibility in Denver, noted that the fact that he uses a wheelchair is commonly known throughout the city.
“That someone didn’t even do some basic checking on who the elected council member is for the debate that we’re having is kind of nuts,” he said. “And then that they thought ‘Oh, we’ll just lift him up’ is also nuts.”
Denver Clerk Paul López said in a statement that he regrets Hinds “had an adverse experience” at the debate.
López said his office reviews and approves applications for venues looking to host debates. Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s application, obtained by The Denver Post through a public records request, indicated that its “theater is ADA accessible via our back entrance.” López office granted the application approval.
“No one should have that experience, and I have apologized to Councilman Hinds personally,” López said.
In 2018, Denver voters approved the Fair Elections Fund, requiring candidates to participate in public debates in order to receive public funding for their campaigns. Denver’s Clerk and Recorder tracks whether candidates and debate sponsors follow Fair Election Fund guidelines. This is the first election in which candidates can tap into the fund and must attend the debates.
Hinds said the incident rattled him, a consequence worsened by a photo shared on social media of him out of his wheelchair.
The photo, which The Denver Post is sharing with Hinds’s permission, “underscores how ridiculous that evening became,” the councilman said.
Hinds said he must attend a second debate Thursday night, which will be held at the Upper Downtown Neighborhood Association. A representative of that venue attended Monday’s event and assured him access would not be an issue for his second debate.
Malik Robinson, executive director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, said the venue is working diligently on a long-term solution to its lack of accessibility.
“Our team will continue to work with the Denver Clerk & Recorder’s office on candidate profile updates and contact information. It is important to us as we look forward to hosting future debates and events. We will continually check on campaign contact updates and information so that we can plan as far in advance for necessary accommodations, even if they might be at the last minute,” Robinson said.
López said his office is working with all the city’s debate sponsors to ensure they follow accessibility requirements.
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