Discrimination alive and well in Manitou Springs

*Note: This essay was published in the Pikes Peak Bulletin print edition on July 2, 2020. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below.

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America’s talking about discrimination, and Manitou Springs, unfortunately, has its own sins to speak of. Not as violent as the killing of Mr. George Floyd. Not as widespread as the intolerance many LGBTQ individuals face.

But discrimination is ugly, no matter where it is found or who is receiving it. Recognizing this, the City Council has drafted an anti-discrimination proclamation to be discussed and endorsed at their July 7 meeting. The proclamation asks us all to reflect on the “responsibility for making our world better…We all need to demand and practice equality.”

Except if you’re in a wheelchair. Then the city of Manitou Springs doesn’t care.

You see, in Manitou, we discriminate against the disabled. There’s no smearing lipstick on this pig: If you’re wheelchair-bound or otherwise have difficulty with mobility—through persistent neglect and profound negligence—we’ve banned you from our Carnegie library.

 How, you might ask. Well, the Carnegie building’s split-level, twenty-stepped entryway is a Great Wall of Discrimination as much a deterrent to the disabled as any Jim Crow-era sign, swastika, or other wretched symbol of hate.

Let’s pause on just how ugly that thought is in reality. Ask yourself, what might you do (or want to do) if a sign was placed outside our little library that said “Blacks not allowed,” “Jews not welcome,” or “Queers go home”? Shouldn’t it stir emotion when we’re effectively doing the same by restricting civil rights for the disabled at our city’s most-visited public building? (Of course there is no sign, but, then again, there needn’t be.)

While every other public library as far out as Salida has expanded and modernized to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, Manitou has not. (Salida solved the issue as far back as 1995.)

It takes work to get this bad. To willfully ignore such an obvious wrong. There’s a long line of mayors and city council members that knew full well how awful this was and just turned away.

For those inclined to think there’s just not enough Manitou residents with disabilities to care about this issue, think again. Consider three figures: in 2015, El Paso County estimated 66,000 residents lived with disabilities. Additionally, pre-estimates for the 2020 Census find that 20 percent of Manitou’s residents are older than age 65 (roughly 1,000 people), and the Census has estimated that 19 percent of Americans live with some disability. Hundreds of Manitou’s residents are likely unable to access their public library.

Like Joanne Garrison. Nearly ninety now, she’s been tied to Manitou Springs all her life. She first visited our Carnegie library in 1934 at age 3. Due to the Carnegie’s Great Wall, she can no longer use the library she’s cared for (and paid taxes to support) since the Great Depression.

Why? Manitou Springs likes to style itself as a place where all are welcome, no matter how weird.

A friend’s suggested the culprit is apathy. A collective forgetfulness, made worse by frequent city council turnover, that lapses into sinful omission.

Maybe it’s fatalism. That some look on the library as a terminal cancer, too tough to fix, so they’re simply resigned to a slow, steady decay.

These days I think it’s more purposeful. The City Council has deliberately avoided this for decades. Citizens have raised the issue, fought hard for years, and then literally died as the process has seen little to no progress. Even now that the Manitou Springs Arts, Culture, and Heritage initiative has provided the funding necessary to fix the issue, the City Council continues to drag its feet.

After so many years of neglect, it’s not surprising that an easy-to-foresee ADA lawsuit will likely lead the city to have to admit this discrimination against the disabled and temporarily move the library to the Manitou Art Center (MAC) until the Carnegie building can be fixed.

However you peg the blame, in this library move, we all lose. At the library’s temporary home in the MAC, our community’s lifelong learning access will be cut from roughly 2,600 square feet (and a fire code maximum 18 patrons) to 1,400 square feet of dedicated library space at the MAC.

That’s far too small. Look to local comparisons. Woodland Park’s library is 42,000 square feet. Florissant: 7,600 square feet. Salida, which started with a similarly-sized Carnegie library, has since expanded to over 11,000 square feet.

I raise the issue of size to illustrate just how far Manitou has fallen behind, but also to point out that size and accessibility are one and the same. Though some have suggested simply bolting a ramp on the side of the building and be done with it—you simply cannot tackle one issue separate from the other. Getting in is one form of access, but getting in does no good if there’s no space to move once inside.

Other than a rotten few, nobody thinks of themselves as discriminatory. But in the Carnegie case, all of Manitou Springs is complicit in discrimination.

None of us can breathe life back into Mr. Floyd. Though we shouldn’t ever stop, we cannot roll back much of the world’s racism, intolerance, and injustice. But we can take one real step towards eliminating discrimination right here on Manitou Avenue.

If City Council really wants to “practice equality,” then they must know this: Proclamations don’t fight discrimination. Action does. Fix the Carnegie.

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