City councilmember Chris Hinds says he faced “public humiliation” at this week’s District 10 debate
The debate stage was inaccessible to Hinds, who uses a wheelchair.
This article has been updated with a response from the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office. The article’s headline has also been updated.
As a local politician, District 10 Councilmember Chris Hinds said he’s been called a wide range of names, faced threats to his life and had to file a restraining order. Through all of that, he’s held it together.
But when someone texted him a photo making rounds online of Hinds struggling to get from his wheelchair onto the stage at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance for Monday night’s District 10 debate, he broke down.
“It’s really frustrating… that that’s the kind of presentation that folks think is OK,” Hinds said. “The whole point of the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], which was passed a lot more than three decades ago, was that we wouldn’t have public humiliation like this.”
Hinds said that when he arrived at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance for the debate, the first staff member he spoke with said they did not know Hinds used a wheelchair. Other staff members said they planned to lift Hinds onto the stage, power wheelchair and all – about 600 pounds, according to the Councilmember.
Hinds ended up attempting to crawl on stage and propping himself up against a chair to prevent himself from lying down while people tried to get his wheelchair up, all while an audience watched, waiting for the debate to start. When this didn’t work, the debate took place on the ground off the stage.
“My disability is not an ‘episode,'” Hinds said, referring to language in a tweet from audience member and filmmaker Vince Chandler, which included the photo of him on stage. “It is a permanent thing.”
Hinds wrote in a press release that he had to choose between “the campaign’s viability or his dignity.”
The Councilmember is participating in the Fair Elections Fund, which matches local campaign contributions with taxpayer dollars, to encourage candidates with fewer resources. Hinds has collected $125,000 in Fair Elections Fund money as of the end of January.
Candidates are required to participate in public debates like Monday night’s event. If Hinds wanted to keep his campaign money, he had to join the debate, even if it was inaccessible.
“That I would have to choose between my campaigns’ viability, and, frankly, public humiliation… truly I feel like this is just not OK,” he said.
Hinds also said that he was only informed about the debate at the last minute, and expressed frustration that it was scheduled in the middle of City Council’s Monday meeting.
However, the Office of the Clerk and Recorder, which runs city elections, said in a statement that candidates received multiple emails about the debates, which it said were confirmed in December 2022. The clerk’s office also said details, like location, time and date, have been available on the city’s Fair Elections Fund debate page.
“It is simply false that Councilman Hinds was not made aware of the debate,” Denver Clerk Paul López said in a written statement.
On the issue of accessibility, Lopez said debate sponsors are required to fill an application in which they agree to meet ADA accessibility and that Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s application was approved.
“No one should have that experience, and I have apologized to Councilman Hinds personally,” Clerk López added in the statement. “Our office continues to communicate with all debate sponsors to ensure that they can fulfill ADA requirements and other needs.”
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Spokesperson Patricia Smith said the venue did not receive any requests for accommodations when it communicated with candidates before the debate.
Smith also said the venue requested that candidates arrive early, and that three of the four candidates showed up two and a half hours early.
“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,” said Malik Robinson, Executive Director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, in a statement.
Hinds disputes this account, and says the venue did not reach out to him or his staff beforehand, about accommodations or about arriving early. And even so, Hinds said compliance shouldn’t be his job.
“I don’t know how that’s a legitimate response,” Hinds said. “I shouldn’t have to ask them to follow the law. It is insulting to me that they are asking for me to go above and beyond and go out of my way… to make sure that their space is legally compliant.”
A guide the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office shared with nonprofits hosting debates says organizers “Should make sure your location is disability accessible.”
It’s not the first time the city has adapted to accessibility needs after the fact.
Hinds says he’s the first Denver Councilmember to use a wheelchair, and that when he first joined Council in 2019, the chambers and bathrooms at City Hall were not wheelchair-accessible.
And Hinds’ work in City Council is not the first time he’s advocated for more accessibility. In 2018, former Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Chris Hinds Act, improving parking for people with disabilities. Given his advocacy and openness to discuss his use a wheelchair, Hinds said he feels like it would have only taken a basic look at the District 10 race and candidates to know the debate needed to be accessible to him.
“The whole reason I am going for reelection is not because it’s easy… but I feel like I have an obligation to represent my community,” Hinds said.