When election results rolled in shortly after 7 p.m. on April 4, Yolanda Avila stood agape and beaming amidst a throng of friends, supporters and press. She had just bagged a win in one of the nastiest municipal elections in Colorado Springs history. The new District 4 councilor, who will be sworn in on April 18, will be joined by newbies, incumbents and familiar faces who, together, make up the most progressive City Council we've had in decades — one likely to make impactful decisions that could reverberate for generations.
Avila's underdog victory in the historically underserved southeast side of the city is a big deal in its own right. But, adding extra import is the fact that Avila is the first legally blind person to hold elected office in Colorado Springs. Her service animal, Puma, will be the first dog on Council, too, she jokes.
Two days after her win, Avila, 61, is at a loss for words no longer. In between a barrage of phone calls and meetings, she took time to tell the Indy what her election means for people with disabilities, who, even as the single biggest minority group, still tend to get overlooked.
"I've walked all over this city, so I know exactly how dangerous and inaccessible it can be," she says. "I want to be the champion that brings our city up to speed, and now I'm in the position to do that."
Avila really does know those dangers, having fallen into an uncovered 4-foot-deep utility vault beneath a city sidewalk in 2014. She's suing the city over the accident.
But before Avila can help improve the city, she will need some help of her own. Avila is requesting accommodations from the city in order to do her new job effectively. For instance, she says she will need a scanner at City Hall that can read documents aloud and a portable one she can use on the fly. She's already adept with those tools, but just needs access to them in city offices, forums and wherever else she'll go as councilor. An assistant familiar with her needs could prove handy too. "It would be the coolest internship ever, right?" she comments.
City staff, including Council Administrator Eileen Gonzalez and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator Mike Killebrew, have reached out to Avila to ascertain her needs and make a plan for meeting them. Their talks are just getting underway, but the ADA does require that the city make "reasonable accommodations" for employees.
Overall, Avila doesn't expect those accommodations to be burdensome. "I'll have to work a little more, a little longer, but absolutely it's doable. It just looks different," she says. "I think when people see me in action, see what I can do, it'll be really empowering [for other people with disabilities] to know that if I can do it, you can do it too."
Once in office, Avila wants to make the city more accessible. That starts with enhanced transportation (more and faster bus routes, especially ones that reach south of downtown), universally designed infrastructure (2C-funded sidewalk upgrades are a good start) and diversified employment opportunities. Accessibility, she says, is a multi-faceted, interconnected and ever-moving target.
Patricia Yeager is eager to see Avila's plans come to fruition. Hearing impaired herself, she's CEO of the Independence Center, which offers service and advocacy for people with disabilities in the wider Pikes Peak region. By her assessment, "Colorado Springs has been rather hit-or-miss" when it comes to accessibility, but with Avila in power, "everyone will hopefully start to see it not as a burden or a cost, but as a way to include many more people."
Colorado Springs' actual track record when it comes to accessibility is tough to quantify. Like many cities, this one was a bit slow on the uptake after Congress passed the ADA in 1990. It wasn't until more than two decades later that the city hired an ADA coordinator to handle disability-related requests, complaints and strategic planning. Since 2014, Mike Killebrew has been working on an update to the city's Self-Evaluation and Transition plan that's required by federal law.
"The last update was in 2000," says city spokesperson Kim Melchor, "and obviously a lot has changed since then, so he's pretty much re-creating it from scratch."
A final report with recommendations is slated for the end of the year.
Though not all of the public's ADA-related comments and complaints cross Killebrew's desk, about 30 did in 2016. "The vast majority," he says via email, regarded nongovernmental entities "[where] we have little recourse or responsibility (apartments being #1)."
Less than 10 involved city programs, services or activities. "Most complaints [cite] sidewalk defects in public right of way, lack of curb ramps and snow removal," Killebrew noted.
Rachael Stafford, program director at the regional ADA office, says that since the ADA passed, there has been steady progress in making infrastructure more accessible. The Springs-based Rocky Mountain ADA Center is one of 10 federally funded offices nationwide that assist, educate and train any entity obligated to comply with the civil rights law. "Ramp entrances, handrails, [handicap] bathroom stalls — those are all things we've come to expect and benefit everyone, like the postman who wheels boxes up those ramps," she says. "And that's great, but that's a secondary outcome."
The law's intent, first and foremost, had to do with increased access to employment.
"What people don't realize is we've made zero progress on that," Stafford says. "Unemployment virtually hasn't moved."
The National Bureau of Labor Statistics clocks the unemployment rate among Americans with disabilities at 10.7 percent — about twice that of able-bodied Americans. Then, consider nearly 20 percent of the population has a disability, some 56.7 million people according to the last U.S. Census. Obviously, "disabled" is a broad category including both visible and invisible traits, so the ADA gives a legal, not medical, definition for the term, "to mean a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity."
But, as Yeager notes, people are often reluctant to self-identify that way, even to a U.S. Census official. "Those statistics refer to how many people admit to having a disability," she says. "There's a lot of people, especially seniors and veterans, who don't think they have a functional limitation."
Still, the Census shows that at least 76,254 people in Colorado Springs have a disability — a constituency almost exactly the size of Avila's council district. But that doesn't intimidate her.
"I come to this from a place of strength," Avila says. "Because I already know that I can do, have, be whatever I want once I'm committed."