Duluth City Council wants chambers better for all

Steps are being taken to make Duluth's City Council chambers more hospitable for people with disabilities -- or at least a bit less uninviting. Councilor Emily Larson noted that many people find council chambers an intimidating setting, but Dulut...

City council chambers
(File / News Tribune)

Steps are being taken to make Duluth's City Council chambers more hospitable for people with disabilities -- or at least a bit less uninviting.

Councilor Emily Larson noted that many people find council chambers an intimidating setting, but Duluth's City Hall can feel especially off-putting for people with disabilities.

Last week, Larson and fellow councilor Linda Krug successfully introduced a measure reducing the lead time required to request a sign language interpreter for a City Council meeting from two weeks to two days. The resolution, which was passed unanimously Sept. 10, also directs city staff to look into the cost of providing closed captioning for broadcasts of council meetings on public access television.

Meanwhile, Councilor Jim Stauber has been working with Duluth City Architect Tari Rayala on a plan to better accommodate wheelchairs in the council chambers. Stauber explained that benches in the room leave no good place for audience members in wheelchairs.

"The chambers may be accessible, but people in wheelchairs get stuck in the aisles, blocking everyone else off," Stauber said. He described plans to shorten the bench seating in places so that individuals in wheelchairs readily fit into the audience. Stauber said accommodations can be made for a relatively modest cost, using unspent funds already in the council's budget.


Russ Stover, a former City Council member who uses a wheelchair, agreed the current setup is uncomfortable for guests in wheelchairs.

"It makes you feel like no matter where you sit, you're going to be in the way," he said.

Stover praised the city for installing a wheelchair-accessible bathroom in City Hall, and said: "It's a lot better than it used to be, but it's still an old building, and there's always room for improvement."

Larson said she, too, had expressed an interest in doing a better job of accommodating wheelchairs in council chambers and was pleased to learn Stauber was already working on the issue. She said the city isn't in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but contends Duluth should aspire to deliver more than the minimum.

"We do everything that's required, but sometimes what's required just isn't enough. ... Requiring two weeks' notice for an interpreter is not enough," Larson said.

Larson explained that often it's unclear what issues will come before the City Council until the agenda session meeting, typically held four days before the official Monday evening meeting at which actions can be taken.

Joanne Coffin-Langdon of Duluth, who works at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is deaf and said she welcomes the change and the opportunity to become more involved in city government.

"I have come to many council meetings without accommodation because I believe in the issues that are being discussed and want people to see that, in numbers, people support this or that issue," she said.


But Coffin-Langdon said she would like to do more than simply demonstrate her support as a crowd member.

"I would love to understand, and speak to the topic," she said. "My voice is an important voice that is all too often left out because of access."

As for providing two weeks' notice, she said that can be a challenge for her, especially as a mother with family commitments to juggle.

"How many people can decide hours before a meeting that they are going? Or the night before? I would love to have the same kind of access," Coffin-Langdon said.

And Coffin-Langdon said she is optimistic closed captioning will open new doors for Duluthians with hearing loss in the near future.

"Captioning would be awesome," she said. "If I can't be there, I could actually watch from home like a typical person without wondering if it will be captioned or not. This is one more step towards fairness and equity in Duluth."

Larson said the city pays interpreters about $30 per hour, and noted that unspent council funds already budgeted should be more than sufficient to cover the cost of increased requests for service. She said it's unclear what the costs of closed captioning would be, but the City Council directed city staff to look into the matter and report back to it.

Councilor Krug expressed hope that the accommodations for residents who are deaf and hard of hearing will allow more people to get involved, to the benefit of the whole community.


"People who don't hear well are contributing members of our community, too," Krug said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Craig Schield, a deaf counselor for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, thanked the City Council for its actions last Monday and told members that many people would benefit from closed captioning coverage of meetings.

"Hearing loss could happen to anyone," he said.

Schield noted that one in every 10 Minnesotans suffers from hearing loss, including one-third of Minnesotans who are 65 or older.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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