To celebrate the 26th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disability Act last year, Jason Ragsdell led a small crusade through downtown Durango, targeting businesses with poor accessibility for people with disabilities.
More specifically, the group of activists used chalk spray paint (which can be washed off with water) to depict a person falling out of a wheelchair, accompanied by the words “no access.”
“I really wanted to get people thinking about it,” said Ragsdell, an independent living program manager for the Southwest Center for Independence, a local nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live independently.
“I’ve lived here (Durango) most of my life, and I wasn’t diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) until 2004. I would go to different places and never give it a second thought. Now that I have to use a mobility scooter, it’s all very apparent.”
It is this sense of devout activism for the rights of people living with disabilities that in part earned Ragsdell the Ron Halsey Award for Rural Activism, administered by the Denver-based Colorado Cross Disability Coalition.
The award is named in honor of Ron Halsey, one of the first leaders in Colorado to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in rural parts of the state, years before community services were commonplace, the coalition’s Executive Director Julie Reiskin said.
Reiskin said Ragsdell was nominated, and ultimately won the award that places special significance for helping the disabled community in rural areas, for the continued, impassioned work he has done over the years.
“Jason was nominated by more than one person because of his leadership in Southwest Colorado and for being a very steady presence,” Reiskin said. “He knows what his values are, and he’s very strong on that.”
Ragsdell was particularly noticed for his work as part of the Accessible Communities Team, which for the past three years, operating on a $25,000 grant from the city of Durango, has helped businesses become more accessible.
The ACT is comprised of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, the Durango Business Improvement District, Community Connections, Adaptive Sports Association, as well as the Southwest Center for Independence.
This past year, especially, Ragsdell said the ACT was successful getting local business to make serious headway in making improvements to their establishments, such as improving entrances and installing grab rails in bathrooms.
Ragsdell said some of the businesses that jumped on board included T’s Smokehouse & Grill, BREW, Father’s Daughter Pizza, Cuckoos/Animas City Theatre, College Drive Café and Backcountry Experience, among others.
“We’ve had a hard time getting people to participate. I think people are hesitant because they think there’s going to be something punitive involved,” he said. “But that’s not the spirit of this group. This team has always run with the idea that good access is good business.”
Ragsdell is a Durango native who attended Durango High School, and went on to attend Fort Lewis College briefly before heading to the University of Colorado to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1993.
He bounced around from Denver to Seattle, taking odd jobs for a publishing company, as a bartender, delivering beer and even working for the La Plata County government for a time.
In 2004, two years after he had moved back to Durango, his diagnosis changed his life.
“I was never much of a planner, and now that I have a disability, I find myself having to plan out every small portion of my day,” he said. “Everything gets more difficult. You have to plan your commute, what you’re going to wear – it just adds a whole different layer of preparation I wasn’t accustomed to, at all.”
So it was with a fortuitous twist of fate that Ragsdell in 2011 ended up taking a job with the Southwest Center for Independence, which helps about 350 people a year.
“Living without a disability and then living with a disability, it was really obvious the different way I was treated, and so I was definitely drawn here because of their mission,” he said. “There’s a lot of agencies in town that help people with disabilities, but this agency, their focus is helping you help yourself, and I really liked the idea of that.”
Tara Kiene, president of Community Connections and who helps lead the ACT, said Ragsdell is relentless in advocating for people living with a disability.
“A large percentage of the businesses that followed through and made improvements have been a result of Jason’s efforts,” Kiene said. “He is really personable and great to work with, and he also doesn’t back down.”
Ragsdell said Durango is doing a better job of making itself accommodating to disabled people – especially when compared to adjacent towns – but there is still a lot of room for improvement, particularly with sidewalks and entrances.
“Because of the historic nature of the town, we’ve got a lot of places that have poor entrances,” he said. “And for a town this size, our curb cut situation is getting a little better, but the sidewalks are still impassable in some areas.”
A recently awarded grant will allow advocates to start promoting accessibility in other smaller towns around Durango, such as Cortez, Dolores, Dove Creek, Pagosa Springs and Silverton.
It wont be a quick fix, Ragsdell said, but it’s a start. He said it takes a significant amount of time and organization to change the mindset in some of the smaller areas.
“I think a lot of the time, people expect what people with disabilities want is assistance,” Ragsdell said. “And usually, they just want to be included. That’s the mission here.”