Category Archives: Accessibility

Access at High Altitude

Perhaps you have experienced the snow packed, ice-covered sidewalks of Summit County, Colorado. You crunched your way along annoyed, but never thought much of it after. Imagine you approach the same treacherous sidewalk, only this time you are in a wheelchair. For those living with disabilities relying on mobility and other assistive devices, such a sidewalk is an impassable obstacle, and the unfortunate daily reality for much of the year in our winter-laden towns. No simple walks to morning coffee. No easy access to run errands or get to your doctor’s appointment. Nothing is a simple task.

Meet Leo Santos, a 26-year-old Summit County local who understands such challenges better than most. Since the age of three, Leo was brought up in our own Colorado mountains and knows the life of long winters in a rural town, but at the young and healthy age of sixteen his perspective would change. What started as joint swelling and pain progressed into the debilitating chronic condition known as gout. The disease became so severe it limited Leo’s physical mobility and forced him into a wheelchair. In 2018 Leo developed osteomyelitis, an infection deep in the bones of his left foot. The infection required immediate life-saving treatment, transfer by ambulance to Denver, and intensive care. Leo returned home to Summit as an amputee.

This was a dark time for Leo, now further limited in mobility and relying on in-home nursing care for recovery, an unusual fate for a young man. It was during this recovery Leo’s nurses, provided through Bristlecone Health Services, suggested he reach out to the NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence. After constant prodding from his caregivers, Leo reluctantly agreed to explore the program. The rest was life-changing.

The NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence (NWCCI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with any disability get their independence back. NWCCI serves youth, adults, and seniors alike, connecting them (consumers) with resources including independent living services, housing, transportation, assistive technology, and employment opportunities. Their only requirement? Be a willing participant and have at least one goal toward living independently. The organization has their headquarters in Steamboat Springs, CO, but serves individuals across North West Colorado, including chapters in Craig, Grand County, and Summit County. NWCCI is supported by grants and donations and offers services free of charge to their consumers.

Leo recalls the anger and frustration of his new reality post-amputation and his own reluctance to do anything. Leo remembers the day he decided to make a change, stating, “I can sit here and be miserable or get back out there and do what I love”. He instantly made his first goal: to physically leave his house. It was here he met Carlos Santos, a staff member of NWCCI and now dear friend, who helped Leo accomplish his first goal. Leo fondly recalls his first outing with NWCCI, a group trip to go painting in Breckenridge, and then to Downstairs at Eric’s for pizza and games. Goals were met, a community was found, and life-long friends were made that day.

Leo Santos and The Ebert Family Clinic Montañeros on their ascent up Arapahoe Basin ski area to over 12,000′

Despite Leo’s improved outlook with his newfound community, he was not spared of continued challenges. In Fall of 2019 Leo became a double amputee. In addition to another devastating change, he continues to live with intense chronic pain related to gout. He describes his journey away from addictive pain medication and commitment to being free. Leo confessed he does not consider himself to be strong or tough but has learned to deal with it in his own way. Leo hopes to receive his first prosthetic leg this March.

Many challenges face those living with disabilities in the High Country. Anyone needing a prosthesis or wheelchair must travel to Denver for fittings and supplies. Transportation which accommodates disabilities is an ongoing challenge, both with lack of properly adapted vehicles and volunteers to drive them. As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to this population and the seniors NWCCI serves, transportation to receive the vaccine is a major concern, as well as getting members on the waiting list. NWCCI hopes to reduce this obstacle. Other challenges outside of mobility include isolation among the disabled and elderly, long winters, and lack of general resources. Additionally, Leo brings to light the continued need for American Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant housing, a regional challenge even for those without disabilities.

After almost three years as a consumer of NWCCI, Leo now proudly serves as the NWCCI Summit County Youth Coordinator. Leo hopes to inspire and connect with youth by sharing his own story and continued struggles. This year Leo will help plan and attend the Youth Leadership Forum, an annual conference which draws in youth from all over the state and provides education about ADA rights, being a self-advocate, and ultimately providing an opportunity for youth to transition independent from their parents. The conference will be held virtually this year. Leo gives a shout out to the other local programs supporting the disabled community in getting out on the mountain, such as the Keystone Adaptive Center (KAC), and Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC).

“NWCCI staff and consumers are here to support anyone who is ready. We are willing to help and teach you if you are willing to help yourself,” he says. Leo stands firmly by this statement, saying they are not intrusive, but rather they are here with a supportive like-minded community with resources for independence when you are ready.

An accessible swing at a new playground in Frisco, Colorado’s Walter Byron Park.

Even the smallest of goals accomplished can change a life Leo explains,

“You don’t have to go anywhere; you can just go outside and sit in the sun. The better you feel the more you will want to do.”

Programs of NWCCI are spread much by word of mouth through consumers. More information can be found on their website at https://www.nwcci.org/. The organization is open to new consumers, volunteers, and donations. Opportunities for connection and support are available to all individuals including virtual gatherings. NWCCI is committed to supporting individuals living in their own homes and the communities they love, regardless of age or disability. 

To learn more about the United States’ largest minority group and the world of disabilities, view the inspiring true Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company in 2020, Higher Ground Productions, Crip Camp tells the true story of a group of summer campers in the early 1970’s and their fight for recognition and civil rights. View the trailer here.

A woman in a white medical coat with a stethoscope around her neck and long blond hair stands arms folded in the foreground of a landscape covered in snow with tall, snow-capped mountains in the background under a bright, blue sky with some sunlit, fluffy, white clouds.

Ruth Nash is a second-year family nurse practitioner student at Colorado University, Anschutz Medical Campus. Born and raised in Cleveland, OH, Ruth attended Hocking College earning her Licensed Practical Nurse Diploma and licensure, followed by an Associates in Applied Science and Registered Nurse licensure, then completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Ohio University. From the New England Appalachians, to the Midwest, and now here in the Colorado Rockies; Ruth has served in long-term care, bariatric surgery, pediatrics, special-needs adult programs, youth summer camps, and in the emergency room. Ruth lives full time in Keystone, CO and currently works in the emergency department at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. Outside of the ER and pursuing an advanced practice license, Ruth enjoys mountain biking, hiking, skiing, rafting, art, and teaching barre fitness at a local dance studio. 

Accessibility at Altitude

How accessible are the places you go?

This past weekend, volunteers from Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco teamed up with the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence for No Barriers, a non-profit program that, among other impactful things, works to empower people with disabilities and bring communities face-to-face with what it means to be accessible.

This particular program, called “What’s Your Everest?“, takes place every year at various outdoor venues, connecting people with all sorts of disabilities with their ropes teams who assist them in ascending literal mountains. This year, held at Arapahoe Basin on the Continental Divide, participants navigated narrow, single-track trails over large rocks, through forest, up increasingly steep inclines to reach a summit well over 12,000′ (3657 m).

Volunteers and organizations across the state contributed to this weekend’s success, including STARS, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, providing a fleet of adaptive equipment to facilitate the ascent.

Some of the adaptive equipment provided at the No Barriers hike at Arapahoe Basin: we saw people on all kinds of apparatuses from hiking poles to one-wheelers to three-wheelers equipped with every kind of pedaling, wheeling, steering and braking device!

I imagine most people associate accessibility with wheelchair access in a restaurant, braille menus, audio signaling at crosswalks, ASL interpreters … this is just the tip of the iceberg. I promise you have never seen gear like adaptive equipment, and even if you have, you haven’t seen all of it.

How do you navigate a wheelchair up a mountain when it’s wider than the trail?

How do you operate or steer a wheelchair if you cannot grip the wheels or handles?

How do you navigate a trail without sight?

One of a fleet of adaptive cycles used for our No Barriers ascent and descent of Arapahoe Basin ski area. This particular apparatus allows the user to steer using pressure against a chest pad while “pedaling” with their hands. You can’t brake while using your hands to pedal!

None of this is easy, and even the current adaptive equipment has inherent flaws. It’s important to recognize that each person’s disability is unique, and can’t always be compensated by the same equipment produced for the next person.

Our ropes team with Leo in a wheelchair engineered for off-road ascents. Handles in the back for pushing, a handle inside either wheel for moving the wheels, steering and braking — but what if your disability prevents you from gripping the handles??

How do you start thinking about accessibility?

Accessibility is about cost. Adaptive equipment is expensive. Custom-making a recumbent bicycle that allows you to pedal without the use of your legs or feet is thousands of dollars, and people who need this equipment to partake in activities everyone without a disability enjoys should not have to pay more for being disabled.

Accessibility is about comfort. After volunteering at this year’s annual Colorado Youth Leadership Forum, where young adults with disabilities are empowered and educated about advocating for themselves and living independently, I realized you cannot expect people to stay focused and engaged in your programming if the room is too hot or the provided meal is unfulfilling. If someone without a disability is distracted by the temperature, you can be sure the attention of someone with autism is long-gone.

Accessibility is about time. Whatever expectations you apply to the amount of time someone needs to put clothes on, eat, use the bathroom, speak a sentence – forget all about it. People with disabilities often need more time. If someone needs more time in the bathroom or walking/wheeling to a destination, adjust your expectations and wait. Your impatience and intolerance is not improving access.

Two teams taking a break half-way up to Black Mountain Lodge at Arapahoe Basin ski area, after navigating some of the narrowest portions of the trail.

Accessibility is about language. Learn sign language. It is just as much a part of our culture as spoken English and Spanish. People with hearing impairments often learn to read lips because they are taught that their hearing counterparts can’t be bothered to learn a form of communication other than one spoken language. And this isn’t just about being deaf. Having a disability sometimes means you have a speech impediment, or that your brain doesn’t organize thought and speech the same way others do. Communicating effectively takes all forms for all disabilities: physical, mental and emotional.

Northwest Colorado Center for Independent Living (NWCCI) Independent Living Coordinator Carlos Santos hauling down the mountain at Arapahoe Basin ski area on an adaptive cycle after making his ascent to over 12,000′ on foot with hiking poles.

Accessibility is about attitude. Sometimes, people with certain disabilities can be very loud and blunt. Sometimes, they can walk, but with a limp. Sometimes, they speak very slowly. This does not mean they are rude, drunk, can’t think for themselves or can’t express their own opinions. Accommodating these situations means being prepared to shift your expectations and perspective.

I’ve been scolded by people sitting behind me at an opera for whispering translations to my blind companion next to me, before headsets with translations were provided. I’ve helped my friend into an outdoor trash elevator to get from the street level to a downstairs bar. And there was still a step onto the elevator platform. I’ve witnessed someone being thrown out of a bar for being “too intoxicated”, when in reality, he was just paraplegic and walked with a limp. And how is someone in a wheelchair supposed to use a port-a-potty at an outdoor music festival?

Is this the best we can do?

Our indoor establishments are barely held to any minimum standard of accessibility. Why are we doing so poorly, and why does access stop when it comes to the outdoors?

Ebert Family Clinic’s team, Medicina Para Montañeros, ascending the final 100 meters at Arapahoe Basin.

I continue to learn more and more about what it means for any particular event, establishment, activity or location to be truly accessible and inclusive, and it is important to me that my friends and family with disabilities are able to partake in the same experiences that I enjoy. I’ve realized that recommending a place that is “accessible” depends a lot on the disabilities present. Determining whether or not someone in a wheelchair can navigate a trail depends on what kind of wheelchair they are in as well as the grade and width of the trail.

12,500′ after hours of hiking, pushing, pulling, wheeling, carrying our way up to the top of Arapahoe Basin, discovering that ‘what is inside us is truly stronger than what is in our way’.

Accessibility is about problem-solving. It is up to all of us as a community to find solutions that enable our friends and family with disabilities to interact as freely with our environment as those of us without disabilities, both indoor and out. I encourage anyone and everyone to start with a simple visual assessment: take a look around you, next time you are on a hike, in a brewery, by the lake, at the farmer’s market, at your favorite coffee shop and ask yourself if your disabled counterparts would be able to join you. Start there.

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.