IOWA CITY — When Harry Olmstead arrived last week to a campaign stop in Iowa City, he was disappointed to find the basement venue, where 2020 presidential hopeful Andrew Yang was speaking, accessible only by stairs.
Olmstead, who uses a wheelchair, said he returned home when he could not access the Iowa City Yacht Club’s basement, where Yang participated in a March 13 Political Party Live podcast recording.
An advocate for a more accessible community, Olmstead said his experience was not unique. With several downtown businesses accessible only by stairs, he often tries to reach out to campaign and event organizers beforehand to ask about accessibility.
It’s a barrier Olmstead and other Iowans hope to address as the caucus season begins. They argue that a candidate stopping in Iowa should do everything in their power to make sure all can attend.
“So I’ve been kind of a saddle sore for a lot of candidates,” Olmstead said. “A candidate needs to instruct their campaign staff, particularly their campaign manager, to get the word out to areas they will be going to and let them know that if they’re going to have a meet and greet or a fundraiser, it needs to be accessible so people with disabilities can also go.”
Jason Zeman, who owns the music venue Yacht Club and nightclub Studio 13, both in a 101-year-old building at 13 S. Linn St., said the latter establishment is on the ground floor, making it much more accessible. Studio 13 has hosted a Monday dance party for people with disabilities for more than a decade, he added.
Zeman said he was unaware of any access issues during Yang’s visit, and the event organizers chose the Yacht Club space over the Studio 13 space, he added.
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“Normally at these type of events, the event organizers would make sure to address any issues and work with attendees and our staff if any help was needed,” he said in an email.
Yang had other stops in the state and Iowa City that day, including Prairie Lights Books.
Emails seeking comment sent to Yang’s campaign were not returned.
Catherine Crist, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus and national co-chair of the National Association of Democratic Disability Caucuses, said accessibility to a campaign event is a civil rights issue.
Crist said Wednesday she still was gathering information on Yang’s recent visit to Iowa City but said she has spoken with the candidate in the past and he has expressed interest in making his stops accessible.
Accessibility — from compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to providing American Sign Language interpreters — can often be overlooked, Crist said, when campaign officials try to set up an event in an unfamiliar community. Issues often are more prominent in the early months of the campaign season, as campaign managers scramble to secure a location under a time crunch.
“There’s a level of frustration around being able to get to campaign events,” she said. “I see the purpose of the Democratic Party Disability Caucus as allowing people to have access to information so that they can make informed decisions about who they would like to vote for.”
According to a U.S. Census Bureau 2010 Americans with Disabilities report, about 30.6 million people nationwide 15 or older had lower body limitations resulting in difficulty walking or climbing stairs.
The report notes that 3.6 million people used a wheelchair and 11.6 million used a cane, crutches or walker to assist with mobility.
Crist said people with disabilities represent between 17 percent and 22 percent of the voting electorate.
Crist said oftentimes accessibility is simply overlooked by those setting up a campaign visit.
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“What we’re trying to do is educate campaigns and candidates on what accessibility actually looks like,” she said, adding that she has been seeing more awareness in the last few elections.
In Mount Vernon, Myrt Bowers said she and Kate Rose have been doing similar work.
In their hilly community, where countless buildings have stairs and many structures were built before ADA requirements, simply finding an accessible building can be a challenge.
“Indeed we would like to only offer those venues that have the adequate ADA accessible entryways, but that is almost impossible,” Bowers said. “What we do is acknowledge that, but then if someone needs assistance — for the individual that has difficulty walking or is using a device — we will help them get into the venue.”
Mount Vernon resident Meg Fishler said she has been trying to attend campaign stops with her son Gunner, 12, who uses a walker or wheelchair.
She said she hasn’t had any major issues so far this year but noted that — for those who live it every day — accessibility has to be top of mind.
“It’s just an issue wherever you go, whenever. You always have to kind of be cognizant of where you’re going,” she said.
Bowers said another challenge is that campaign stops traditionally come with as little as 24- to 72-hours’ notice, which means the community’s more accessible locations could already have events scheduled.
“I think the biggest thing, at least for us, is recognizing that we cannot always meet ADA requirements, so we need to look at alternatives and affix to that, which we do,” Bowers said. “We will do everything that we can to ensure that the individual is able to take part inside the building.”
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