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Colorado's historic Red Rocks music venue works to become more accessible

Denver is planning to improve and expand wheelchair-accessible seating in the front row
Frank Mango of Roxborough Park sits in his wheelchair next to an area of Red Rocks Amphitheatre’s first row that has traditionally not been accessible to wheelchairs. The blue tape shows where new wheelchair-accessible seats will be as Denver makes modifications to the venue for those with disabilities. Photo by Deb Hurley Brobst Colorado Community Media

MORRISON, Colorado - Natalie Ostberg of Pine loves to attend concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

The 29-year-old loves all genres of music, according to her mom, Laurel, who figures Natalie has been to at least 100 concerts since 2002. She’s rocked out to Earth, Wind and Fire, Cyndi Lauper, Arlo Guthrie, Stevie Nicks and many more.

Natalie, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair. The Ostbergs were at Red Rocks in Morrison on Oct. 18 to learn more about proposed changes to accessible seating at the amphitheater, hoping it would become accessible to even more people.

Denver is planning to improve and expand wheelchair-accessible seating in the front row by removing the bench seating and improving the ramp access to the first row to provide more room for wheelchairs and those moving along the row. In addition, some seats in rows 2 and 3 will be earmarked for those with mobility issues such as people with walkers and canes, and other seats will be for people who are hearing-impaired to give them better access to interpreters.

Improvements will be made to shuttle parking access, and a ramp will be constructed from the front row to the stage, which will benefit events such as graduations that take place there. Plus improvements are planned for row 70, the row at the top of the amphitheater that also has wheelchair-accessible seating.

Some of the improvements will be completed in time for the 2023 concert season while others will be completed by 2025.

Margaret Miller of Arvada, who is hearing-impaired, said she came to Red Rocks to learn about the plans, hoping to help improve the experience for others like her and hoping to make a difference.

“They’re making an effort,” Miller said. “They are doing more to comply with the laws.”

Miller explained that she attends concerts at Red Rocks periodically, though she usually sits with her friends who can hear.

Frank Mango of Roxborough Park has been a Red Rocks concertgoer since 1982, and his perspective changed in 2013 after he was injured and needed to use a wheelchair. Mango, who learned more about the proposed changes on Oct. 18, said they would be a step in the right direction. In addition to changing the venue itself, he hoped Red Rocks could do more to block scalpers from buying accessible seats to sell to able-bodied customers.

Mango was one of six plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit filed in 2017 over being overcharged for tickets. Three months ago, the Justice Department ordered the city of Denver to pay nearly $48,000 in refunds to about 1,800 people who bought tickets for wheelchair-accessible seats at 178 shows.

The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t allow venues to charge higher prices for seats that are accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Red Rocks has accessible seats for its events in the front and last row. Venues like Red Rocks that physically cannot make accessible seating available in all parts of the theater must price the tickets as though the seats were proportionally distributed. 

According to the settlement, the U.S. Justice Department found more than 10% of people purchasing wheelchair-accessible seats were charged more than they should have been under ADA rules. Some paid $130 more per ticket for their seats.

Alison Butler, director of Denver’s Division of Disability Rights, Human Rights and Community Partnerships since March, understood the accessibility needs at Red Rocks because before she took the new position, she represented those plaintiffs in the discrimination claim.

When Barker joined the Division of Disability Rights, among her first questions was, “What can we do to help?” Her division began asking those with disabilities who attend Red Rocks for ideas on how to make their experience better.

“Having more seats and a fully accessible row 1 can be a game changer to people,” she said. 

Red Rocks Amphitheater was opened to the public in 1941 and seats 9,500. With 192 steps to get from row 1 to row 70, plus the steps to get up to the venue itself, concertgoers get a workout just to be in the venue.

Ro-Tien Liang, ADA architectural access manager for Denver’s Division of Disability Rights, explained that three things must be considered as the city makes changes to the amphitheater: following Americans with Disabilities laws and the wishes of the users while understanding the functionality of Red Rocks.

"Most important,” he noted, “we don’t want to strip away what makes Red Rocks Red Rocks.”