By Bret Hauff
Rural counties across Colorado are reopening, but not for everyone.
Restaurants, bars, parks, stores, ski areas and trailheads closed this spring for several weeks or months as the nation began feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many considered restrictions to public spaces unprecedented.
But not much changed for Kelsey Bell.
Parked cars recently filled downtown Durango. Bell and her partner, Hunter Purdum, parked in an accessible space a couple blocks away. They navigated at her pace, as she uses a wheelchair. He helped her stay on the sidewalk when it sloped to the street. She looked to him when a wheel snagged a crack in the pavement.
Wearing a face mask was new for the young couple; it was the first time in more than a year they had been downtown. They never bothered going out before the pandemic. Finding an accessible dining establishment for lunch is “like finding a needle in a haystack,” Bell said.
Restaurants teemed with guests at tables spread six or more feet apart as dining spilled onto the Main Avenue sidewalk, bustling again with locals and tourists. Passersby peeked into boutiques, seemingly checking if there were too many people inside to enter.
Bell, with a glance at the ground, rolled past. She couldn’t enter many businesses while using her wheelchair without a portable ramp. Even then, it’s hard to know which restaurants have accessible bathrooms, and most aisles in retail shops are too narrow for her to navigate, she said.
Bell, 24, whose right foot was amputated when she was a toddler due to a congenital deformation, is one of hundreds of thousands of people living with disabilities in Colorado—individuals who make up about 10% of the state’s population, said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (a Colorado Trust grantee). Mountain communities are notorious for accessibility barriers, particularly for people with impaired mobility, she said.
“It is very hard to live in some of those communities in a wheelchair,” Reiskin said. “People live in these communities, become disabled and then leave.”
Some sidewalks in Durango end midblock. Some hills are so steep that ascending in a wheelchair is daunting, even with support, Bell said. And while officials are installing curb cuts across the city, she said the work seems piecemeal. Seemingly obvious barriers—like a post blocking part of a narrow sidewalk along a high-traffic bridge—go without notice.
Bell can overcome many barriers to access when she’s healthy and supported by a prosthetic, but she’s been in a wheelchair since late 2019 when she fell and dislocated her kneecap. The couple wants to stay in Durango, but both recognize the stress, financial and emotional, they could face if Bell were injured again and confined to a wheelchair indefinitely.
“Either her mental energy or my physical energy can fail,” Purdum said. “Then it’s just the same story of another disabled person leaving Durango.”
A cracked and uneven road
Accessibility wasn’t at the top of Bell’s college-search list; the thought didn’t cross her 18-year-old mind, she said. She’d always been able to do everything her family did growing up in southern California. She doesn’t have many memories of when limited mobility kept her from doing something she wanted to do.
Durango, a city of about 19,000 nestled in a lush valley between high deserts and mountain peaks, was so different from the Pacific coast and anything she knew before, Bell said. She committed to Fort Lewis College after a short visit, but the allure of southwest Colorado faded as physical and social barriers to accessibility began challenging her confidence and sense of self.
“There’s a lot of stigma—it’s only in the past few years that I really identified as a disabled woman,” Bell said. “It wasn’t until later in my college experience that I really identified and was unabashed about it.”
She met Purdum, 25 years old and raised in Durango, on the dating app Tinder while in school. After graduating, she got a job at the Southwest Center for Independence, a local disability-advocacy nonprofit. Now, as an advocate for young people with disabilities in southwest Colorado, “I have job security.” Bell said. “I’m never going to run out of calls [from other people with disabilities] about, ‘I can’t access this, I can’t find housing, I can’t navigate this place.’”
Many of the barriers to accessibility in Durango stem from ignorance. “It doesn’t even enter people’s minds,” said Martha Mason, executive director of the Southwest Center for Independence.
Accessibility barriers vary among rural Colorado communities, according to Reiskin. Sidewalks in Durango, for example, are difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. The nearest sign-language interpreter to Craig is a three-hour drive from that northwest Colorado community. And although wheelchair accessibility in Montrose “is pretty decent, [accessible public] transportation is horrible,” Reiskin said.
But at least one pattern exists: Mountain communities with tourist-based economies and high housing prices tend to be less accessible, Reiskin said.
The city of Steamboat Springs has made “great strides in physical accessibility,” said Ian Engle, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence, another disability advocacy and services provider. But “it’s kind of shocking and surprising how much is left to do,” he added. “What we’ve done is we’ve kind of hit this wall of apathy and have become complacent; ‘it’s good enough, we’re getting by.’”
Even Lamar, one of the more accessible communities in rural Colorado (and, notably, not in the mountains, nor heavily dependent on a tourism economy), has its challenges, said Kenny Maestas, southeast representative for Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. While Maestas, who uses a wheelchair due to injury, can get around most of the town’s businesses and sidewalks, “the accessible housing is horrible,” he said.
People facing accessibility obstacles in smaller communities are often less likely to sue or take direct action to protest a business or government for fear of retribution, Reiskin said. Businesses may not see the value of investing in often expensive accessibility adaptations, or may be reluctant to make major changes without either knowing a disabled person or being disabled themselves, she said.
“When people deal with it personally, there is this awakening of, ‘Oh, now I see the ramp is important,’” Reiskin said.
Furthermore, lack of access leads to fewer people with disabilities using public spaces, creating an illusion that they don’t exist in many rural Colorado communities, Reiskin added. For example, seeing disabled people in Grand Junction was rare until more accessible infrastructure was installed.
“It used to be that I was the only one I would see in a chair” in Grand Junction, Reiskin said. “Now, most of the time there’s more than one of us on a bus. I never don’t see another chair user [in Grand Junction].”
But the same can’t be said for Durango. Even after spending his childhood there, Purdum didn’t recognize many of the barriers to accessibility in the city until he met Bell. So many in Durango see so few disabled people that meeting someone in a wheelchair can be challenging, he said.
Obliviousness is easier.
“There’s a bitterness that develops when your eyes are opened,” Purdum said of learning about the barriers to accessibility in his hometown. “We try to plan for so many things, but just one thing can derail everything. … We can never compensate.”
Leveling the way
Despite three decades of federal law mandating accessibility, many people living with disabilities in rural communities are left lacking equitable resources to pursue opportunities.
Bell’s wheelchair prevents her from accessing many businesses in downtown Durango that lack wheelchair ramps, limiting her choices of where to spend money or find employment. She has wanted to attend recent Black Lives Matter protests, but many were held in parks without wheelchair access.
“If it’s not in your world, it’s not in your world,” she said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. The rules, first enacted 30 years ago, require local governments to self-evaluate, identify and modify policies, practices and plans that may discriminate against people with disabilities.
The federal law also forbids private places of public accommodation (restaurants, retail, etc.) from discriminating against people with disabilities, setting a minimum accessibility standard for building alterations and new construction, and directing businesses to make “reasonable accommodations” when serving and employing people with disabilities. This includes modifications like moving furniture, widening doorways, repositioning shelves or providing an accessible route from a parking lot to an entrance.
But enforcement of the ADA, a responsibility of the U.S. Department of Justice, “has been very weak” under the Trump administration, Reiskin said. Civil litigation is an option, a lengthy process for towns or businesses that can become more expensive than the cost to install accessibility modifications.
“With all civil rights, they’re not given,” Reiskin said. “They’re taken.”
Litigation has done more harm than good for accessibility in Steamboat Springs, Engle said. Many lawsuits come from out of town, and businesses often settle lawsuits for cash that goes to the individual rather than into modifications for better accessibility, he said.
In his work, Engle instead tries to partner with businesses, build a plan within their budget to make public accommodations more accessible and encourage the idea that “good access is good business.” That, he said, builds a defense to civil litigation and creates a mutually beneficial relationship. Most businesses are accepting, he said.
“You gotta break ground somewhere,” Engle said of convincing business owners to invest in accessibility infrastructure. “You find the one business owner who says, ‘This works.’ They’re going to listen to a fellow business owner before they listen to me.”
Willingness to abolish accessibility barriers also comes with influential people knowing a person with a disability. Maestas’ father in Lamar worked for the city in 1989 when Kenny became a quadriplegic injured in a single-vehicle car crash. Maestas, now a father himself, credits much of the accessibility in his hometown to timing and his father’s persistence to make the city he worked for more accessible. (It also helps that Lamar is topographically flat, he said.)
“I think just things kind of worked out. The city was open to putting in ramps, the ADA was coming into effect, my father was working for the city, and me trying to find myself. I don’t know if you would call it a perfect storm,” Maestas said. “Now, they’re completely redoing the entire main street, and it’s very nice, very accessible.”
Furthermore, having people with disabilities in positions of power, like Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds, who uses a wheelchair, can serve to further dismantle accessibility barriers in policy and practice, Reiskin said. Many barriers to accessibility can be easy to miss without having experienced them.
Back in Durango, the city knows all the curb cuts that need constructing or replacing, said Levi Lloyd, director of city operations. But “it’s too big of a project to go out and do all of them around the city,” he said. Instead, the city installs or updates a curb cut when the street it abuts is upgraded. The city has installed 33 curb cuts so far in 2020, none last year (the city did not upgrade any streets in 2019) and 83 in 2018, Lloyd said.
Most changes to existing sidewalks are actually the responsibility of adjacent property owners—meaning many areas without a pedestrian pathway won’t necessarily get one, Lloyd said. And most new sidewalk construction in Durango comes with redevelopment; the city often requires developers to install or upgrade sidewalks as part of a major project.
State funding is also helping Durango become more accessible, said Sarah Dodson, the city’s acting director of transportation. The city is looking to a $2 million award from the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Southwest Center for Independence this year to make city transit stops more accessible along U.S. Highway 550 north of downtown. Such a project is just a piece of the estimated $20 million in work the city has identified in a plan to make transit more accessible, Dodson said.
In the meantime, Bell gets by as best she can. She wonders if the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently made her daily challenges more relatable to more people.
“What I hope people take from quarantine is that not being able to go to places really sucked. Yeah, well, imagine a whole lifetime of that. You don’t get the same level of experience because you can’t go and do all the same things,” Bell said.
“Durango is not open for everybody.”