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When Disability Discrimination Hits Home

How Colorado families experiencing access issues can file complaints and fight to win change.

For an individual with a disability, an outing to a restaurant could turn to frustration if the bathroom door handle requires a tight grip. Poles, ruptures, steep inclines, and sharp curbs on sidewalks can make moving freely through a city, especially Colorado mountain towns, nearly impossible. And, participation in a sports league sounds fun and freeing for a child until their hearing impairment is disregarded by organization leaders. One Colorado family who experienced this very incident filed an ADA Title III complaint, leading to a settlement in March in which the soccer club promised to provide auxiliary aids and services free of charge when needed for deaf or hard of hearing players.

The American Disabilities Act (ADA), which turned 30 this summer, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. Title III also envelops private entities such as places of lodging, food and drink establishments, entertainment areas, retail and service stores, places of recreation and education, and more.

Three decades on, visibility and accessibility for the nearly one in five (as many as 56.7 million) Americans with some sort of disability (as recorded by the 2010 U.S. Census) remains insufficient. Meeting the Challenge, Inc., a Colorado Springs-based ADA compliance consulting agency, reported exponential increases in ADA lawsuits coming under their practice in 2017. Unfortunately, many “drive-by lawsuits,” as Meeting the Challenge calls quick legal action after an encounter with an inaccessible element of a business, rarely end in structural changes to the problem.

Jennifer Levin, attorney at Disability Law Colorado, agrees that systemic change happens more often when folks bring issues directly to the business or organization, in hopes they’ll recognize the need and adjust. If they don’t fix it, the next action is to file a formal complaint with Colorado’s Civil Rights Division or the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Levin suggests first going to the Civil Rights Division because they have timelines for their administrative process (270 days), whereas an ADA complaint with the DOJ can sit for a while. In either case, having an official complaint in the system can bring more persuasion power to get the issue fixed. Bringing a lawyer into the mix might be a last resort, and a somewhat rare need after the previous steps, according to Levin.

How to file a complaint

Through the Colorado Civil Rights Division, public accommodations complaints must be filed within 60 days of the incident of alleged discrimination. That’s for a one-time experience, such as being denied entry with a service animal, says Levin. Individuals with complaints about ongoing issues such as a business with no access ramp shouldn’t have to worry about a deadline. The first step in filing includes an intake form with a questionnaire and opportunity to include as much relevant information as possible. If the Division has jurisdiction and deems appropriate, they’ll assist in drafting a formal complaint. The respondent has 30 days to respond, and then the complainant can, if desired, submit a rebuttal within 30 days of the response.

Filing an ADA complaint with the DOJ could bring a case to the United States Attorney’s Office District of Colorado for investigation, or to another federal agency and end up in litigation; however, not every complaint can be investigated or taken in legal action. Some are referred to the ADA Mediation Program, which offers a free service that engages both parties in discussion and problem solving. Title II (state and local government services) and Title III (public accommodations) complaint filings can be mediated, with the process remaining open until the parties develop “mutually agreed upon solutions that comply with the ADA.” Mediation may be the preferred method for folks who would like a speedier resolution. In any case, complaint information is used for the Department of Justice’s Disability Rights Section (DRS) civil rights compliance and enforcement activities.

Disability Law Colorado offers a range of free or low-cost legal services, from referrals and self-advocacy assistance to direct representation. They also conduct disability law trainings to service providers, school districts, attorneys, policy makers, employers, and parents.

“If parents have any issues with their schools, now they probably are with COVID, give us a call because we want to know what’s going on,” says Levin. “We have a team for that.”

Photo courtesy of Grupo Vida

Becoming an advocate

Physical barriers aren’t the only concern for Colorado families, accessible intellectual and behavioral support is on some folks’ minds. Parents looking to address any form of discrimination can start by aligning themselves with other parents to build courage and influence.

Aurora mom Eva Leon says that more than anything else, her child’s disabilities have provided the family opportunities to grow and learn: “Nos ha dado muchas enseñanzas en la vida.” “It has given us many lessons in life.”

Leon’s daughter, Saraly, now age nine, loves to build things out of cardboard and recyclable materials. She’s joyful. She also deals with attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and dyscalculia. For Saraly, this means she struggles with organization, tends to be impulsive at times, perceives numbers and math differently, and her speech is slightly affected.

When Saraly was a baby she’d cry often. At age three, her teacher called together a conference with concerns about the child’s hearing. After diagnosis, Saraly had her first IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) meeting; Leon felt lost. The therapies and terms used were gibberish to her. Taking to research and Grupo Vida, a network of Hispanic/Latino parents with kids who have special needs, Leon has discovered the power of her voice.

Now, Leon is a champion for Latin immigrants, sometimes in spaces they aren’t often represented. She is a contributor to the Colorado department of Education’s Parents Encouraging Parents program, board member of El Grupo Vida, and founder of the nonprofit Amigos de México.

“I thought that as an immigrant I did not have any voice here but I have realized that if I am going to be able to help my dear Saraly, my voice and hers must be heard,” says Leon. “Don’t let status stop you. If there is something that you have questions about then investigate and seek help.”

No estamos solos. Sigamos luchando por la inclusión.
“We are not alone. Let’s continue to demand inclusion.”

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