Ian Engle entered Olde Tymer’s Cafe at lunchtime Tuesday with a large party of activists with disabilities.
Soon he had to urinate.
To avail himself of the downstairs bathroom, Engle, who is wheelchair-bound, had to hoist himself backward down the narrow, steep staircase, risking injury. Onlooking kitchen staff gasped as the wheels of Engle’s chair thumped against every gradation like a heavy roller suitcase.
Going down turned out to be easier than going up.
Once downstairs, Engle had to wait 10 minutes while Olde Tymer’s staff called 911, hoping to enlist the fire department’s help to extract him from the bottom level. Finally, a group of off-duty La Plata County sheriff’s deputies intervened and carried Engle up a concrete stairway that led to the patio – the only staircase wide enough for the feat.
Durango – a place preoccupied with plastic bags, the evils of cigarette smoking and the correct disposal of dog poop – is easy to mock as a bastion of social sensitivity.
But Tuesday, a protest organized by the Southwest Center for Independence in which about 20 people, many wheelchair-bound and bearing placards that said access is a civil right, made a tour of Main Avenue’s businesses and revealed downtown Durango to be anything but disability-friendly.
“If you don’t have to deal with it, it’s just out of sight, out of mind, you know?” said Jason Ragsdale, the protest’s organizer and a Center for Independence employee.
Ragsdale said the protesters hoped to show business owners that current accommodations for the disabled often are inadequate and to secure follow-up meetings to discuss useful and cheap architectural modifications – often to doorways and bathrooms.
Part guerrilla political theater, part gentle shaming, the protesters – who whipped out a portable, foldable metal ramp whenever confronted by businesses with inaccessible doorways – mounted a withering social commentary of downtown Durango’s frequent oblivion to the disabled.
When the protesters tried to enter Poppy’s sandwich shop – which, because of its two-step entrance, couldn’t be overcome with their ramp – owner Matt Scott, who appeared embarrassed if not flabbergasted, explained that disabled people usually entered on a ramp in the back that led into the kitchen.
Without missing a beat, Engle whipped out a hand-made sign that read: “Cripples use the back door.”
“I’ve been through so many dirty alleys – what if I want to go on a date?” Engle asked.
Engle and Poppy’s owner agreed to meet later to discuss how Poppy’s might become more accessible.
Engle said the group’s tactics, while confrontational, were a last resort.
“We try to come to a common understanding after the initial embarrassment. You can call places up like that, but you just get blown off,” Engle said.
Ellinda McKinney, an independent living coordinator with the Southwest Center for Independence, said recent reports of disabled tourists being stranded at Durango-La Plata County Airport without suitable transportation and even being charged more by taxi companies to get into Durango provided the impetus for the protest.
But she said downtown’s capitalist ethos could present challenges, too.
“People in Durango are so focused on their business and getting tourists in. They don’t think about the other half of the population who is disabled,” she said.
Some businesses took the protesters’ criticisms in stride.
At Derailed Pour House, management readily accepted that the staircase to the bathroom, though short, was far too steep for a ramp, and protesters praised the staff at Olde Tymer’s as being “really cool” and thoroughly supportive.
As the group passed Lady Falconburgh’s Barley Exchange, protester Christopher Ray said, “That’s terrible – no access at all.”
Fellow protester Carla Vigil said, “It isn’t fair. That’s why we need to change it.”
Maria’s Bookshop, meanwhile, got a thank-you card from the protesters.
“They even have a ramp to go over the hump in the door!” McKinney said.
For their part, the protesters said they were pleased to bring the issue to the forefront.
“Durango has a lot of handicap-accessible issues that aren’t going to go away,” Vincent LaDue said.
Able-bodied locals joined the protest.
Janet Thompson said she was there in solidarity.
“I could have disability issues in the future, too,” she said.
Shafi Majeed, walking beside her, said he was “just supporting my human brothers and sisters.”
“If we just worked these problems through with engineering, it wouldn’t be an issue,” Majeed said. “Instead, we want to go to the moon and all this weird stuff.”
Merry Anne Nelson, who lives at Four Corners Health Care Center, said she became wheelchair-bound four years ago after a spate of surgeries and a spinal virus.
“But I love to go places,” she said.
Dolly Gingrar whooped encouragement as the protesters passed by.
“I think it’s wonderful, what they’re doing, and more should be done,” Gingrar said. “They should be able to go anywhere we go.”