When Barriers Are Smashed
Courage and Love Smash Unexpected Barriers
By Donna Smith
Progressive Democrats of America, National Advisory Board Chair
You may not have seen the news or you may have forgotten all about it by now. This week, Denver City Councilman and candidate for re-election Chris Hinds was forced to crawl up onto the stage for a scheduled debate or forfeit the matching election funds from the city. The story drew attention not only locally but throughout the country and even globally. Councilman Hinds has used wheelchair since 2008 when an accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Many people have wondered why any person would feel forced or compelled to respond as he did to the barrier presented. I didn’t. Our society remains grossly and intentionally uninformed about what it is like to face physical barriers due to a disability. We passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, the ADA, 29 years ago yet we still build and maintain most buildings and even our cities to accommodate people without physical disabilities. Often, until a property’s owner is confronted by a legal challenge to become ADA compliant, barriers remain unchanged.
I wasn’t in Denver when this week’s barrier-busting occurred. I was sitting in my daughter’s home relaxing on the couch when my daughter asked me if I knew anything about the disabled man she saw crawling on that stage. What? I knew who it had to be when she asked that question. Chris Hinds is the only man in a wheelchair I know who is actively campaigning right now. I pulled up the story, and when I saw and read the piece, I was dumbfounded. I was angry. I was horrified. How could a venue known to celebrate the diversity of the Denver community never have needed to accommodate anyone in a wheelchair? A dancer’s dream, that stage has launched careers and helped break cultural and economic barriers. Yet on that evening, no one had even considered a person in a wheelchair needing access. That was more than an oversight. It had never been necessary for that stage to allow disabled people to dance.
Yet, the gentle soul and thoughtful man I know as Councilman Chris Hinds was able to take the moment of personal humiliation and struggle and turn it into a vibrant teachable moment for millions of people. Undoubtedly, that particular venue will rectify the lack of access to their stage. They have already said so. It remains to be seen if the wider lesson for stages and performance venues everywhere will be truly absorbed and learned. It ought not be necessary in 2023 for any disabled person to point out that need.
Chris said today that sometimes he thinks people view the disabled as “less than” other elected leaders when they advocate for the disability community as if it’s the only issue for which they are capable of advocating. Funny thing is, I see Chris as more able than most elected officials to truly understand what makes a community more fully integrated for all its people. Most disabled people understand that being highly competent in as many ways as possible is the only way to be seen and heard over the often unconscious and immediate impact their physical limitations make so obvious to the non-disabled. Even people who consider themselves compassionate, impartial people can be unaware of the dynamics of their own reactions to those who are disabled.
Disabled men and women are candidates for office like Chris Hinds. More need to run, and more need to be elected. Disabled men and women are also speakers, dancers, painters, sculptors, authors, business leaders, and more. It turns out disabled people are actually human beings. Fully human beings. And until we can actually embrace our full diversity, we are all disabled by our prejudice and our arrogance.
I was at a community meeting today with Councilman Chris Hinds and candidates Tony Pigford and Sarah Parady. Beforehand I had written a note to Chris, and I read it to him there for everyone to hear.
February 25, 2023
“I have had scoliosis since I was in my 20s. It has been progressive, and doctors told us in the 1990s that I would be in a wheel chair by the time I was 55 years old. I have fought with walkers, canes and more for many years to keep myself walking. It hurts. I cannot do the things I used to do. But when I am left to hoist myself into the back of an uber ride in a huge GMC truck as my husband pushes on my ass, I feel humiliated and alone. It’s not very ladylike or even decent to feel like your body won’t do something and therefore you cannot do whatever that thing is.
I was sitting in my daughter’s home when she asked me about a news story she was seeing. She mentioned your name, Chris. I quickly read the story and saw the photo and pounded my own leg with rage. My throat hurt and I was there with you, trying so hard to do the thing I could not do – and I was broken. Then you turned it into something others might learn from. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and the crookedness of my back.”
Chris, you are a hero. My hero.
“Peace and power, together,”
My hope, my humble ask is that everyone who reads this essay will share it and donate to the effort to make sure these wonderful people are part of making sure every human being in Denver is valued and protected equally. A great city deserves no less. Great people do too.