Nearly three decades after a landmark federal law mandated that public facilities be made equally accessible to those with disabilities, there are still thousands of public places in Colorado Springs and El Paso County that don’t comply and no clear plan to fix most of them.
City and county officials have touted their recent efforts to bring public spaces in line with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act by adding curb ramps, re-striping parking lots to include more accessible spaces and making other adjustments. From 2016 through the end of next year, Colorado Springs’ investment in accessibility is expected to exceed $9 million, according to data provided by the city.
More improvements are in the works, they say.
But local advocates for people with disabilities, long frustrated by the lack of progress, fear there are still decades to go before public sidewalks, parks and buildings are fully accessible.
“Thirty years ought to be enough, you would think,” said Drew Wills, a paraplegic who is on the board of directors for The Independence Center, a Springs-based nonprofit that helps support people with disabilities.
He sees the city and county’s recent efforts as an attempt to appease federal regulators and forestall future legal troubles. It’s an already-late response that’s expected to unfold gradually — “when people who are having barrier problems and access problems need it now,” he said.
“You’re in a difficult position of saying (to the city and county), ‘We appreciate what you’re doing.’ And we do — but come on.”
Barriers, by the numbers
Just last month, the county unveiled a draft of its “transition plan,” a document that all local governments with 50 or more employees were required to complete by early January 1993 under the ADA.
The city is working on an overhaul of a similar plan that was created in the early 90s and hasn’t been updated in years.
The documents and related facility assessments provide a window into the scale of the city and county’s accessibility woes.
Officials have identified more than 3,500 ADA violations that would cost upwards of $4 million to fix, according to data from the city and county. Those barriers range from counters that are too high and restroom stalls that are too narrow to uneven sidewalks and walkways.
That number of violations will undoubtedly grow, as will the price tag on fixing them.
The city hasn’t yet released numbers on the obstacles that people with disabilities face when they travel through the Colorado Springs airport, visit more than 160 local parks or use Mountain Metropolitan Transit to get around.
And the county still has roughly 20 more buildings, trails and open spaces to assess.
Plus, there’s roughly 2,400 miles of sidewalk and 30,000 pedestrian ramps in the city, — and more on the county side — that must be compliant.
So far, the city has assessed about 40% of those ramps, and found that as much as 90% of those surveyed do not meet the ADA’s technical requirements, Colorado Springs Public Works Director Travis Easton said in an email.
Many of the flawed ramps were built decades ago along roads that haven’t been touched since the ADA was passed, Easton said.
The transition plan documents offer only a rough timeline of when improvements might be completed.
The Colorado Springs plan states that most barriers are set to be removed on 1- to 10-year timelines. The county expects that “overall compliance is possible in 20 years.”
But those schedules hinge on funding availability, both plans note.
“This is a plan to get to a transition plan. It’s not the transition plan,” Patricia Yeager, The Independence Center’s CEO, said of the county draft. “They have a lot of work yet to do.”
Allegations lead to change
Colorado Springs faces mounting legal pressure over accessibility issues.
The city agreed in August to a $22,500 payout to Richard Muszynski, who alleged in a lawsuit filed in El Paso County District Court that city sidewalks were blocked and curb ramps were inaccessible. These were obstacles for his child, who has a disability.
The city also agreed to repair sidewalks, install curb ramps and crack down on walkway obstructions in the Stetson Hills neighborhood. Under the terms of the settlement, though, Colorado Springs didn’t admit liability for Muszynski’s claims.
The payout comes on the heels of two other ADA-related city settlements within six months of one another.
Lawsuits and legal threats are some of the few ways that advocates for people with disabilities have been successful in getting governments to resolve accessibility problems, experts say.
“The issue with the ADA is it takes a lawsuit to enforce it. There’s no ADA police,” Yeager said.
Colorado Springs must install more than 15,000 curb ramps over the next 14 years under a settlement reached in response to a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver in March.
Last September, a lawsuit similar to Musynski’s case ended in a settlement that was perhaps the most symbolic victory in recent years for Colorado Springs residents with different access needs.
Stetson Hills residents Chris and Nikole Sweeney sued the city, alleging their neighborhood has for years lacked necessary ramps and sidewalks.
Chris Sweeney has been in a wheelchair since being struck twice by lightning, once while on duty in the Air Force.
The city agreed to pay the couple $19,000 and hold quarterly town halls for residents to discuss accessibility issues and concerns around town.
The county has faced far fewer legal troubles stemming from the ADA.
In the past five years, the county settled one claim over accessibility for $13,260. That agreement was reached in November 2016, according to the county.
Behind the curb
Yeager and other advocates say governments nationwide have long ignored the provisions of the ADA, in part because no one was forcing them to abide by the law.
But locally, progress in achieving compliance has lagged behind other cities in the state, she said.
“Both the city and county have come to the table late,” she said. “It’s just a shame that it seems like the ADA didn’t get over Palmer (Divide) until sometimes in the mid-2000-teens.”
The ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities working for organizations and agencies that received federal funding.
President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990.
The city developed a transition plan between 1991 and 1992 and updated the document several times in 1995, a city staffer previously told The Gazette. But for years after that, the plan went untouched.
For more than two decades, neither the city nor county had full-time ADA coordinators. Instead, various aspects of the job were spread among different departments.
By 2015, the Colorado Springs area had fallen well short of the spirit and letter of the ADA, The Gazette reported. Buildings and pathways were inaccessible to the then-estimated 66,000 people with disabilities in the county.
“Colorado Springs is a little behind the times,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which aims to ensure that people with disabilities can access facilities and meet other basic needs.
“I would think a city of that size should have figured this out by now,” she said.
She noted, for example, that Fort Collins, Pueblo and Denver have commissions or committees that allow citizens to weigh in on ADA issues and government priorities for improvements.
Progress made elsewhere in Colorado has also been fueled by legal concerns.
Denver agreed in 2016 to install at least 1,500 curb ramps annually — until every pedestrian walkway crossing in the city is compliant — under a settlement with the nonprofit Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, the Denver Post reported.
Two years later, Denver pledged to spend millions of dollars more on ADA compliance after the U.S. Justice Department conducted a review and demanded improvements, The Post reported.
Meeting the Challenge, a Colorado Springs-based ADA compliance consultant, is working with 10 other localities in Colorado, said the firm’s director, Dana Barton.
“This is happening all over the state and all over the country,” Barton said. “When it comes to accessibility, if it doesn’t affect you or a loved one, sometimes you don’t think about all the things that go into making activities, services and programs accessible.”
Improvements in the works
Wills, a personal injury attorney who’s handled accessibility cases, said he lost the use of his legs about 15 years ago in a “freak ski accident.”
He often sees hallways and other passages that are too narrow for wheelchairs and parking spots blocking curb ramps.
And when he’s working at the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex’s older south tower, he has to use the restrooms in the newer parts of the courthouse because his wheelchair won’t fit in the aging tower’s bathroom stalls.
“There are buildings like that all over — even city and county buildings,” Wills said.
But local officials have stressed that they’re continuing to make strides in accessibility. New buildings and sidewalks are being constructed with ADA requirements in mind, they say.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” county facilities Executive Director Brian Olsen told county commissioners during an Oct. 24 work session. “That’s not to say we don’t have deficiencies and need to fix those — and we’ll continue to do so.”
The county’s 2019 budget includes about $555,000 worth of ADA improvements that will be fully completed this year or next year, Olsen said. A 2020 staff budget proposal allots another $300,000 to compliance projects.
“Could we do it better? Absolutely. It’s a matter of money,” said Mark Waller, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. “We have a limited and finite number of dollars.”
Mayor John Suthers’ proposed 2020 budget includes $1.4 million for the city’s ADA program and operating costs. Last year the council unanimously agreed to hire five new ADA inspectors, an administrator and a human resources staffer.
City Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, an accessibility advocate who is legally blind, praised the city’s progress.
“I have seen a notable difference,” Avila said.
“I don’t think it’s easy when we’re covering 200 square miles,” she said. “But we’re making our best effort.”