Disabled Vet's Lawsuit Accuses Colorado Springs, Neighbors of Violating Accessibility Laws

By Swanson, Conrad | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), February 25, 2018 | Go to article overview

Disabled Vet's Lawsuit Accuses Colorado Springs, Neighbors of Violating Accessibility Laws


Swanson, Conrad, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO)


Rolling his wheelchair to the edge of a six-foot gap in the sidewalk near his home in eastern Colorado Springs, Chris Sweeney grabbed a collapsed "sidewalk out" sign and shoved it under his arm.

He used the improvised crutch to cross the gaping hole and plopped himself back into his wheelchair, which his wife had pushed to the other side.

"This is a big 'f--- you' from the city," Sweeney said.

Fifty yards to the north he repeated the exercise.

After four years of these problems in his Stetson Hills neighborhood, Sweeney said he's had enough. On Feb. 15, he and his wife, Nikole Sweeney, filed a lawsuit against the city and others. They allege that Colorado Springs is woefully out of compliance with federal laws demanding equal access for the disabled.

The problem exists around every corner in Sweeney's neighborhood and he said his family's pleas for help have been ignored by city, state and federal representatives. Even the majority of their neighbors have turned against them. But the Sweeneys say their fight is for the benefit of every veteran and disabled person in town, many of whom, they say, undoubtedly face similar challenges every day.

Lawsuit raises doubts about Colorado Springs' commitment to comply with access laws

City representatives have acknowledged to Sweeney and The Gazette that parts of the neighborhood were built in violation of city codes. Citing the lawsuit, city representatives will no longer comment on Sweeney's complaints or the extent of disabled accessibility issues.

Representatives for another defendant in the lawsuit, Diversified Property Management LLC, declined to comment and a third defendant, the Stetson Hills Master Home Owners Association, Inc., did not return messages seeking comment.

City Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, who is legally blind, said at least some of the responsibility is the city's - it's not Sweeney's duty to ensure accessibility.

Avila said she was drawn to public office to provide equal access to those with different needs. She and Sweeney often face the same challenges, as does much of Colorado Springs' disabled population.

Sweeney said he's largely been bound to his wheelchair since being struck twice by lightning.

He was first hit in May, 2004, while on duty in the Air Force. Lightning struck the information technology building he worked in and traveled through his body. Only his magnetic name tag kept the shock from stopping his heart, he said.

Then, in June, 2006, Sweeney said he was driving with his hand outside the window of his truck, resting on the roof. The second bolt hit. He noticed his legs were tingling, but managed to drive himself to the hospital before realizing he couldn't stand.

Now, Sweeney uses his wheelchair - and crutches occasionally - to get around. He's done his best to stay active by playing sports or spending time with his wife and four sons, two of which are autistic and require special attention. But he's limited.

"We had to change our lives to what the city has decided to allow for our neighborhood and surrounding areas," he said.

City rejects responsibility

Enacted in the early 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires governments to provide the disabled equal access to different facets of public life, including schools, workplaces and transportation, said Julian G.G. Wolfson, the Denver attorney representing the Sweeneys.

Under the law, Colorado Springs must abide by ADA regulations in residential areas, Wolfson said. To many, including the Sweeneys, curb ramps and sidewalks "obviously are necessary to reach various public accommodations."

Colorado Springs spokeswoman Kim Melchor said the city has done all it can and no longer bears any responsibility for Sweeney's accessibility concerns. Instead, the homeowners association might be the only organization that can help, she said.

But Sweeney said the association is part of the problem. …

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