Debate Including Wheelchair-Using Denver City Council Member Had Inaccessible Stage

Councilman Chris Hinds uses a wheelchair to get around.
Councilman Chris Hinds uses a wheelchair to get around. Courtesy of Chris Hinds
On February 13, candidates vying for the District 10 Denver City Council seat gathered at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance studio at 119 Park Avenue West for a debate.

The debate was mandated by Denver's new public campaign financing mechanism, the Fair Elections Fund, and candidates Shannon Hoffman, Margie Morris, Noah Kaplan and the incumbent, Councilman Chris Hinds, were ready to pitch their best vision of District 10 — which currently includes Capitol Hill and Uptown and will soon include parts of downtown, thanks to redistricting. But there was a problem.

The stage at the studio was inaccessible. And Hinds, who uses a wheelchair to get around and arrived jut a few minutes before the debate was set to start, had no way to roll up there.

"The first person that I see who works for the venue said, 'Oh, I didn't know you use a wheelchair to get around,' which is baffling to me. And then my campaign staff, they said that they talked to the organizer of the event, and their plan was just to lift me up onto the stage. Lift my wheelchair and me onto the stage. I went with my power wheelchair, which is 400 pounds, and I weigh almost 200 pounds," Hinds says.

Hinds notes that he had only found out about the debate a few days earlier, after his campaign manager got wind of the event through social media; neither the organizer nor the Clerk and Recorder's Office had reached out to him, he says. The scheduling time and location of the event seemed weird to Hinds, too: The venue is located in District 9, under both the old and new maps. Additionally, the debate was scheduled for 4 p.m. on a Monday, which is smack in the middle of when Denver City Council meets.

After reaching out to the Clerk and Recorder's Office, Hinds was informed that he had to go to the debate or he would have to return the $125,000 in Fair Elections Fund money that he had gotten so far. Per Fair Elections Fund rules, candidates qualifying for the fund must participate in one FEF-sanctioned debate.

"The binary choice that I had was to participate in the debate and face public humiliation or lose my campaign viability," Hinds says, describing his thinking before he crawled up onto the stage. "I got out of my wheelchair and was laying there on the stage. They gave me a chair that I just hugged. I can't move most of my body. I'm paralyzed."

Hinds says that he was doing all of this in front of an audience that had already gathered for the debate, which was being delayed.

"They never actually got the wheelchair onto the stage. I got on the stage. [Then] I got back in the wheelchair and then we ended up having the debate in front of the stage. I would say I was clearly rattled," Hinds says.  "I am not certain as to who made the call. They just said, 'Hey, do you want to just sit in front of the stage?'"

The Fair Elections Fund debates online page has a "Debate Sponsor Resources" tab that includes a seventeen-page guide from Nonprofit Vote for hosting a candidate forum. At the bottom of page eight, the guide states, "Make sure your location is disability accessible."

Hinds says he spoke with both the Clerk and Recorder's Office and the venue organizers, and "they keep pointing the fingers back at one another."

"The clerk says that the venue signed a document that says their venue is wheelchair accessible and so it was on them. And then the venue was saying that they wanted the District 9 debate and not the District 10 debate and that the clerk's office told them that they had to do the District 10 debate," Hinds recalls.

Clerk Paul López notes that he apologized to Hinds for what happened, and says, "The debate sponsors share our commitment to making accessibility a fundamental part of the democratic process, and we regret that Councilman Hinds had an adverse experience at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s debate on Monday." López also rejects Hinds' assertion that the councilman had not received an email notifying him of the debate schedule.

Meanwhile, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance organization issued a statement noting that the candidates had been asked to arrive two and a half hours before the debate, which would have allowed for accommodations to be made.

Adds Malik Robinson, the executive director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance: "The CPRD team develops short-term stage accommodations in advance of events because we know the CPRD Theatre stage has limitations. 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. We understand the stage limitations, and plan in advance necessary accommodations prior to events. We are working diligently on a long-term solution."

And in the meantime, Robinson issued an apology to Hinds.

Hinds says he simply hopes nothing like this happens again: "I don't understand how it is possible today, more than three decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, that there would be this complete lack of any research or thought into the process."

This story has been updated to include information in statements from Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Clerk Paul López.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a former staff writer at Westword, where he covered a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports; he now lives in upstate New York.

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