By Bente Birkeland, Colorado Public Radio
Soon Colorado will get its first state lawmaker known to use a wheelchair. Democrat David Ortiz was elected by voters in south Metro Denver and will be sworn into office in January. But the Capitol building, where he’ll work and where he’s supposed to interact with his colleagues and the people he serves, is not fully accessible to him.
His election has jumpstarted some changes to the 130-year-old building that some say are long overdue.
“Obviously the most urgent thing was to make sure I could at least do my job,” Ortiz said.
The former aviator survived a catastrophic helicopter crash eight years ago while serving in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army veteran lives in Littleton, and the accident left him without sensation or muscle control below his waist.
While the state Capitol is officially accessible to people with disabilities, it isn’t feasible to get around every part of the building in a wheelchair. There are only steps to get into the Senate and House chambers, and steps on the aisles inside the House that made it impossible for a person in a wheelchair to get to any of the lawmakers’ desks. To prepare for Ortiz, ramps have been installed and crews put in a new electronic door so Ortiz will enter the chamber through a break room and reach his desk by going up two ramps.
Clerk of the State House Robin Jones said they have modified Ortiz’s desk so he can fit his wheelchair underneath, and are modifying some of the committee room doors so they’re easier to open. The total cost of the updates is around $30,000.
Ortiz hopes the changes to accommodate him are just the beginning of a journey to make his fellow lawmakers and their staff more accessible to all Coloradans.
“For me, the long term goal is making sure that entire building is truly the people’s house for anybody living with a disability,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four Americans lives with a disability. But Ortiz said before his accident that wasn’t on his radar.
“Unless you have family, friends, or until you live that way yourself, it’s hard to imagine the many different ways that the world isn’t accessible to you,” he said.
A lack of accessibility has created obstacles for people who want to interact with their government. Chris Hinds, who uses a wheelchair, remembers lobbying in the Capitol when a lift was broken throughout the legislative session, so he couldn’t go up the stairs to talk to lawmakers where they gathered with other lobbyists outside of the House and Senate. He noted that accessibility wasn’t a big consideration when the building was constructed.
“There are ways to balance the historic preservation and the celebration of our past with the celebration of everyone today,” Hinds said.
Today, Hinds is a city councilman in Denver and his presence in the city’s official buildings has led to changes there, too. Hinds is a paraplegic after he was involved in a car crash in 2008. When he was elected, he told Denver city and county leaders things had to change.
“I would say, ‘There are 13 members of city council, 12 of them are up on the dias, and one member of council is out in the audience because there’s no accessibility.’”
Hinds said he’s glad the city added ramps, made changes to his office and remodeled the bathroom to make it wheelchair accessible.
“And so it wasn’t just ‘let’s make sure that he can get to his desk.’ In some ways, I understand that they waited until someone was elected before making the city council chambers wheelchair accessible, but City Hall has been open to the people for a long time and that restroom should have been accessible long ago.”
The Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration is looking into improving access not just for the Capitol but in other state buildings and parking structures. Department of Personnel and Administration spokesman Doug Platt said the state discovered accessibility was an issue as they were doing different restoration projects on government buildings in recent years.
“It’s more than just identifying (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance issues, it’s prioritizing them, how significant are they?” The study began in 2018 and Platt expects it to finish in the fall of 2021. “It’s going to be an incredibly robust study. That’s why it takes so long. We’re talking about a very detailed analysis and prioritization of projects.”
According to a 2019 survey from the National Conference of State Legislatures, seven states said they have made physical modifications to their Capitol buildings in recent years to help lawmakers with disabilities participate in the legislative process, like raising the height of committee desks, adding automatic doors, and a customized braille board in Washington state.
Colorado’s not the only state where it took electing someone in a wheelchair to galvanize efforts to improve access for others. Arizona said it has completed extensive renovations after Democratic Rep. Jennifer Longdon won office two years ago. The state relocated desks, added electronic doors, remodeled bathrooms and added a cable sound system that cuts out background noise to help people who use hearing aids.
Longdon said the renovations are a vast improvement and remembers when Arizona’s Capitol had only one wheelchair accessible bathroom.
“There was another one that was supposed to be accessible and I was visiting and tried to use it and ended up breaking my hand because it was just too narrow. How often do you expect to, you know, break a body part, trying to get into a restroom?”
Longdon said she was keeping track of Ortiz’s election victory in Colorado. She describes state lawmakers with physical disabilities as kind of like unicorns because they’re so rare; she said there are only a handful out of more than 7,000 state lawmakers across the country.
“Because of that, I think that this community, the disability community, which is the largest minority population in our nation, really gets woefully underrepresented.”
Last summer, as Ortiz campaigned for office, lawmakers started to focus on how he would be able to access the chamber if he won. Republican House Minority Leader Hugh McKean was instrumental in facilitating the updates. He credits Hinds and Ortiz for helping him look at accessibility through a broader lens. McKean said the ultimate goal is not to do the minimum requirements but to truly embody the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It’s the freedom of movement that we really aren’t that conscious of. And so it’s not just to get to one specific place, it’s to be able to access the chamber or the building in many ways, just like the rest of us and at the same kind of ease,” Rep. McKean said.
But it will take more updates before Ortiz has the same access to the chamber as other lawmakers. He won’t be able to freely move around the perimeter of the House or go to other lawmakers’ desks, where informal conversations on bills often occur. And several steps still block his way up to the speaker’s podium. Since there’s not a ramp, when it’s his turn to preside over the House floor, six staffers will step in to lift him to the podium in his wheelchair.