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Cyclist: Aspen is no playground for disabled

Allyn Harvey

A handicapped bicycle rider from Nebraska found out last week just how unfriendly a place Aspen can be to the disabled.And it wasn’t the steep switchbacks of Independence Pass or the city streets clogged with summertime traffic that caused Bob Klawitter all the trouble. It was the layout and design of Aspen High School.Klawitter was the only disabled person in this year’s 1,130-cyclist Bicycle Tour of Colorado. The seven-day, 400-mile ride included overnight stops at high schools in Buena Vista, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Edwards and Frisco, where the riders set up tents on the football fields or laid bedrolls in the gyms.But when Klawitter rode into town the night of July 17, after a grueling ride over Independence Pass, he was forced to seek accommodations in town because he and his buddies couldn’t find a handicapped accessible bathroom or shower at the high school.”I just assumed that such a rich community would have a wheelchair accessible facility,” Klawitter said. “I wasn’t upset, just surprised. I guess if I had been forced to sleep on a park bench I might have been upset.”In fact, Klawitter ended up staying in The Little Nell Hotel – one of the ritziest hotels in town – at a discount.Aspen High School principal Kendall Evans said the school’s locker room is accessible, but he admitted that getting to it requires inside knowledge about the facility. The only way to get from the gym to the locker room without going down a set of stairs is to exit the building and re-enter through a side door next to the auto shop.Evans said the high school meets the accessibility standards under “the old guidelines” for a building of its age. And there is a bathroom near the administrative offices that is fitted to handle people in wheelchairs.”They said Bob could use the office bathroom. But I couldn’t even fit in that bathroom, and I don’t have to do it in a wheelchair,” said Bill Cooley, a close friend of Klawitter.”It was kind of surprising, because there must be a few students who get into a few ski accidents every year,” added fellow biker Mary Anne Buxton. Not enough room at the inn Cooley arrived in town early Monday afternoon and knew right away the high school wasn’t going to work out for his friend. So he and another rider contacted Aspen Central Reservations and were told there was a handicappped-accessible room for Bob at the Mountain House Bed & Breakfast.But when Klawitter rolled into town on his hand-powered bicycle at about 5:30 p.m., he discovered that the new accommodations weren’t going to work either.”Bob could get into the bedroom all right, but he couldn’t get into the bathroom,” Cooley said.After another call to the reservation service, Klawitter ended up at The Little Nell, which offered to cut its $350 rate to $200. Cooley, a retired airline pilot from Boulder, picked up the tab.”The people at the Little Nell were exceedingly nice. They really went all out to help make things work out,” Cooley said.Cooley has covered much of the tab for his friend, who has lived on a very modest income since injuring his spinal cord 10 years ago. Klawitter was injured at work, but his employer’s insurance company, Union Life of Lincoln, Neb., refused to cover the accident. That left the then 35-year-old Norfolk, Neb., native dependent on monthly disability payments from the Social Security Administration. Disappointment A.J. Schwarz, one of the Bicycle Tour of Colorado organizers, said he and others in charge were just as surprised as Klawitter and Cooley to discover the problems at Aspen High School.It’s the first time they’ve faced this kind of problem, because it’s the first time there’s been a handicapped cyclist on the tour.”Next year we’ll definitely find out if the schools we stay at are wheelchair compatible, and if they aren’t we’ll have to go somewhere else,” Schwarz said.Co-organizer Kent Powell said he was disappointed with the overall reception the tour received from the school district, and was particularly disappointed with the facilities at Aspen High School.”We were there a half-hour before we figured out where the gym was,” he said.Principal Evans said a major remodeling of the school should fix many of the problems that vexed the bikers. But that plan depends on the blessing of local voters, who will be asked to vote on a bond question in November. Although the size of the bond has not been finalized, Evans said much of the money will be used to refurbish the high school and add another wing.”I think if we can get the bond issue passed, it’ll be a better facility for everyone – students, teachers, parents, community groups and people with disabilities,” Evans said.Some of those upgrades may actually be required regardless of whether voters pass a bond or not, because a student who uses a wheelchair to get around is expected to enroll as a freshman next year.Federal law requires public agencies that are upgrading their facilities to make them fully accessible to people with disabilities. That means ramps and elevators to get around the building, doors that are wide enough to handle even the most equipment-laden wheelchairs, and locker rooms and bathrooms designed for anyone and everyone.”The Americans with Disabilities Act is written in a way that leaves no doubts about what schools need to do to be in compliance,” said Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Education.Murphey said the 1992 law gave schools several years to do self assessments of their compliance and make changes to their facilities. His office investigates violations of the law only after a complaint is filed. He declined to comment sight-unseen on Aspen High School’s compliance.


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