Next week, Denver will host the thirtieth annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games, a massive event that includes more than 500 wheelchair athletes competing in everything from archery and bowling to kayaking and quad rugby. While they are here, these vets will no doubt increase local awareness about people who use wheelchairs.
And that's something that Deena Larsen, who suffers from a genetic disorder that has destroyed her knees, applauds. For many years, Larsen could walk and hike, but she is now in her chair more or less permanently, although it allows her to still get around quite well. "I am in the 99th percentile in terms of ability. I have balance and everything else," says Larsen. "So if I can't go somewhere, you can bet it's not accessible for other people."
Which is why she never hesitates to speak up. "I have been in both places," she points out. "I am in sort of a unique situation: I know both worlds. And I had never thought about it, which is why I am thinking about it now." And thinking about it, and thinking about it.
Last September, Larsen organized a group that tried to go to a public meeting on health care hosted by Congresswoman Diana DeGette — when they discovered there were no accessible entrances. When Larsen asked for another, accessible meeting, DeGette's office apologized and honored the request.
Larsen also encouraged the University of Colorado to provide an online accessibility guide with information about parking, elevators, restrooms and power-assisted doors — information that CU has since added to its website.
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In 2008, Larsen wrote to the Denver Post, pointing out that its restaurant reviews didn't include information about whether an eatery was wheelchair-accessible. "I rarely eat out," she wrote, "but I expect to have the same rights as everyone else." At the bottom of her letter, the Post printed this: "Starting today, the Post will indicate in all reviews whether a restaurant is wheelchair-accessible."
Larsen was equally upset by a Rocky Mountain School of Dance performance she attended last week in which she thought a wheelchair was used as a symbol of despair and hopelessness. "The only time the person was happy was when they were dancing out of the chair," Larsen says. "I said, 'Wait a minute, that isn't fair.'" And she said it to the RMSD, in an e-mail and voice-mail message that shared her frustration over the company using "an able-bodied person" rather than an actor who actually uses a wheelchair. "It's like the blackface minstrel show in the '30s," she says. "I don't believe there should be censorship. But be aware, if you are going to portray any minority group by anyone who is not a part of that minority group, you should have an explanation."
And Lynne Patton, who choreographed the show, does. Titled Waiting, it's about a friend of hers, a former dancer who now uses a wheelchair. "It portrays her struggle," says Patton, who founded the children's dance studio in 1992. "Our children have learned that it is a struggle to be in a wheelchair. There is no way we would ever demean or portray anyone in a negative way who was in a wheelchair."
And while she's heard Larsen's complaints, Patton says, "Art is freedom of speech. She has the right to feel the way she feels. I have the right to portray my friend."